Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Citizendium - An Alternative to Wikipedia?

I read in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that there is a move being made to create an alternative to Wikipedia. It is called Citizendium. Larry Sanger, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, is attempting to create an academic version of Wikipedia. The idea is for a project (which is not quite an encyclopedia but close to it) which is open to all but allows experts in subject matter have the final say on articles.

The project is going to begin as a fork of Wikipedia with the copying of all the articles currently there. However, the idea is that real life experts will then begin work on the articles and put a stamp of approval on them when they are ready. Discipline based editorial teams will give final approval to content.

Editors will be required to use their real names. Further, they must have academic qualifications which would qualify them to be considered experts in the subject area. Right now, applications for the project are required to submit a CV. As I understand it, non-experts may be allowed to edit articles but they will have no veto over approved expert editors from the academic community. There will be no edit wars between a 19 year old with an axe to grind and a real life academic. The guy/gal with the doctorate will win every time.

Of course, there is a more academic version of Wikipedia out there already. It is called the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Britannica is allowing visitors to contribute content as well but requiring professional editors to approve it. However, as the content there is hidden behind subscription fees, it is not a long term threat to dethrone Wikipedia. Given a choice between free quality information and subscription quality information, free wins every time even if the paid content is slightly better. What if a free peer-reviewed resource created by members of the academy became big? Now we have an alternative to Wikipedia that both academics and the public could approve.

It is going to be hard to create a resource with a large active academic community. This project participants likely will get few tenure or promotion credits for contributing. This will not count as scholarship in most places. Further, one of the keys to Wikipedia is the thousands of users who update articles hourly. It is a good source for current news and up-to-date information. Can Citizendium be this active?

I wonder how many historians will go for this? How many good historians will Citizendium need to have a good history editorial team which can deal with the massive amount of non-peer reviewed articles at Wikipedia which are mostly accurate but will need work and vetting before getting a stamp of approval? I am not going to join right away but I wish these historians luck.

I would say that chances for Citizendium to be successful long-term are slim. However, I would have thought five years ago that an idea like Wikipedia was doomed as well. And how wrong I would have been...


Steve Muhlberger said...

Wikipedia is not an academic resource. It's more like journalism or talking to a prof in the hallway, off the cuff.

This doesn't mean it's worthless, but you have to be careful.

As for instance you have to be careful about NY Times articles on hot political issues. Buyer beware!

Miland said...

"Wikipedia is not an academic resource. It's more like journalism or talking to a prof in the hallway, off the cuff."

Yes, but Wikipedia is also one of the most heavily used resources in the world.

Academic created resources (like journals) are better but are hidden behind firewalls demanding money or in paper in libraries. Web searchers tend to ignore this and rely on Wikipedia for facts anyway.

And Wikipedia does a pretty good job. Go ahead and try to introduce errors into Wikipedia and see how quick you get banned.

I agree with you. But that is not the point. Web searchers have shown that Wikipedia is used and valued. How can we as academics create a similar system that uses the Wikipedia model but defers to academic experts? Maybe Citizendium is the answer. And maybe not.

Every academic in the world can point out that Wikipedia is suspect and it will change nothing if search behavior by your average joe searcher does not change. Can we create a credible alternative?

anomalous4 said...

Also sprach miland:

"Wikipedia is suspect and it will change nothing if search behavior by your average joe searcher does not change."

I'm not an academic, just a reasonably intelligent (I hope), well-educated ordinary person (BS and 2/3 of the way to an MS before life got in the way and I went in an entirely different direction) who uses Wikipedia a lot but doesn't quite trust it either because I don't know its sources.

I link to Wikipedia in my online correspondence because I know it's readily accessible to anyone who reads my blatherings, but I generally try to verify the information elsewhere. If nothing else, I'll check out a few of the article's offsite reference links.

IMO, Citizendium is an excellent idea because I expect its contents to be more reliable, but I also have a personal reason for wanting to see a no-cost source of high-quality information. Since I'm on disability and dirt-poor as a result, I simply can't afford to subscribe to anything. (The fact that I'm online at all is thanks to a donated computer and my next-door neighbor's graciously allowing me to use her wireless connection.)

I sincerely hope Citizendium takes off, and I think it will. There's a huge potential audience out there that includes not only the academic community (including students) and other professionals, but also plenty of folks like me who simply have a bad case of "V'ger-itis" ("We need the information!").

I'll be watching to see how the project develops. Good luck!

Just 2 brass farthings' worth from one "joe (or more accurately 'jo') searcher" eager to start pointing my readers to Citizendium first.

anomalous4 said...

Here's a case in point of the pitfalls of Wikipedia and the need for Citizendium, from archy (posted 10/29/06) via A Blog Around the Clock:

----------begin quote----------

An object lesson in Wiki research

This post should serve as a lesson in the importance of the two source rule and why we should be careful using Wikipedia to research controversial topics. [...]

You don't hear much about Immanuel Velikovsky anymore, but for three decades he was the best-known voice of anti-establishment science in the United States. Velikovsky's books sold millions in hardback. At his peak, his supporters managed to create an entire parallel intellectual structure complete with journals, conferences, and schisms. [...]

The current Wikipedia article on "Catastrophism" is short and unbalanced. It doesn't mention modern creationists at all. It devotes one section to Velikovsky, but none to other influential catastrophists such as Charles Hapgood. [...]

During the week that I checked Wikipedia, the "Catastrophism" article had eight sections. The additional section (which was online from October 15 - 22) dealt with one particular Velikovsky follower, John Ackerman, and raised the total wordcount for Velikovsky related material to almost half of the the total article. To any student depending on Wikipedia as a source, this would have given them the impression that catastrophism was essentially about Velikovsky, or that he was, at least, the most important person in developing the concept. [...]

What was the idea Ackerman had that someone thought needed to be added to the Wikipedia? The Ackerman section, added by an anonymous author, reads [edited for length. ---a4]:

"Velikovsky/Ackerman Catastrophism

"The ideas of Velikovsky have been greatly advanced since 1998 by John Ackerman (Firmament, Chaos, and Peleh: Hidden Knowledge) in recent years, using new interpretations of ancient myths in the Rig Veda, Hindu, Egyptian, Greek and Roman myth and data from NASA planetary missions. This work has revealed a 3000 year period of repeated close encounters of Mars and Venus with the Earth from 4000 to 687 BC. [...] The V/A catastrophism also reveals many facts still unknown in uniformitarian (academic) circles, concerning the other planets. 1. Jupiter and Saturn are not gaseous, but comprise primarily water in the form of gas hydrates. 2. Venus is a new planet, only 6000 years old. 3. Terrestrial planets are formed catastrophically from vast plasma clouds that rebound from high energy impacts on the giant gas hydrate planets. As a result each terrestrial planet has a unique age. [...]"

[note: more on Velikovsky/Ackerman Catastrophism at Firmament and Chaos. ---a4]

The anonymous author presents Ackerman's theory as if it has already been recognized as the best interpretation of the available facts. That's not the case. Most scientists are unaware of Ackerman's theory and, if they were, almost all would reject it. Imagine the poor student who reports that Venus is only six thousand years old.

Recently, I have seen a number of references to kids being fooled by the brilliant parody site Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and writing research papers about the fictitious invertebrate. I don't know if it's true. A number of teaching sites use the tree octopus as an example of a professional looking site that sounds legitimate, but isn't. At least it is clearly a parody. Material, which appears for the first time in a Wiki entry, is harder to evaluate. Is something new because the article was incomplete and needed this information to be complete? Or is it new because someone is trying to pull something over on us and they just haven't been caught yet.

----------end quote----------

Certainly a tip of the hat is due to the sharp-eyed reader who yanked the Ackerman section after only a week, but the fact that it appeared at all is still cause for alarm. Looks like the "average joe searcher" needs Citizendium even more than the academic community does.

Just another 2 brass farthings' worth from someone whose otherwise reasonably intelligent kid brother was completely sold on Velikovsky for much of his high-school years. I'm off to see if there's a Wikipedia entry on the two-source rule. (As it turns out, there isn't. Maybe I'll start one.)