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Wikipedia: "A Work in Progress"

Online encyclopedia Wikipedia is awash in controversy. The imbroglio was touched off by an anonymously written biography entry that linked former USA Today Editor John Seigenthaler Sr. with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The writer, Brian Chase, has issued an apology for a prank he says went terribly awry. Seigenthaler, in a Nov. 29 USA Today editorial, criticized Wikipedia and called the fake biography "Internet character assassination."

The incident has cast doubt on the credibility of Wikipedia, which lets users anonymously create new articles and edit existing entries -- which number more than 1 million in 10 languages. On Dec. 7, New York Times Business Editor Larry Ingrassia sent a memo urging his staff not to use the site to check information. And on Dec. 12, a group based in Long Beach, N.Y., announced it would pursue a class action against the site to represent those "who believe that they have been defamed or who have been the subject of anonymous and malicious postings to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia."

The encyclopedia is designed to be self-policing, allowing the public to weigh in and correct inaccuracies. But the Seigenthaler entry "slipped through the cracks," says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder and president of Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. The site is taking steps to prevent a recurrence, he says. Those include barring unregistered users from creating new pages. Wales spoke with BusinessWeek Online's Burt Helm on Dec. 13. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

What happened with Seigenthaler's biography?

It slipped through the cracks. In the community, we have what we call a New Pages Patrol -- they put new entries in a category and add links and so on. They just weren't able to keep up with how many new pages were coming online every day. It wasn't what was supposed to happen at that stage in the process.

Since then, we've decided that we want to slow down the creation of new pages, so starting in January we're preventing unregistered users from creating new pages, because so often those have to be deleted.

About how many people use and contribute to Wikipedia?

The number I like to talk about is the number of very active editors -- those that do the bulk of the work. As of October, there were about 1,850 for the English version of Wikipedia, and 4,573 worldwide. We don't know how many unique users visit the site because we're lame and don't keep track of it -- we don't sell advertising, so we don't have to. But we get about 2.5 billion page views per month.

How should users view Wikipedia? Do you think they should consider it authoritative?

It should be thought of as a work in progress -- it's our intention to be Britannica or better quality, and our policies and everything are designed with that goal in mind. We don't reach that quality yet -- we know that. We're a work in progress.

Do you think students and researchers should cite Wikipedia?

No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either -- the error rate there isn't very good. People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level. And really, it's more reliable to read Wikipedia for background than to read random Web pages on the Internet.

Seigenthaler's main criticism of Wikipedia is that contributors are allowed to edit and add to articles anonymously. Why do you feel it's important to allow contributors and site administrators to remain anonymous?

There are two reasons I would put forward. First, on the Internet, it's impossible to actually confirm people's identity in the first place, short of getting credit-card information. On any site it's very easy to come up with a fake identity, regardless.

Second, there are definitely people working in Wikipedia who may have privacy reasons for not wanting their name on the site. For example, there are people working on Wikipedia from China, where the site is currently blocked. We have a contributor in Iran who has twice been told his name has been turned into the police for his work in Wikipedia. He's brave. His real name is known, actually. But there are lots of reasons for privacy online that aren't nefarious.

Doesn't the anonymity open the door for easy slander and libel?

I would say, in general, no. In a certain respect, when you have any kind of Web site with broad public participation -- Web forums, unmoderated mailing lists, comments on blogs, blogs themselves -- there's always the potential that someone is going to write something nasty. It doesn't mean that we're perfect, of course, but the difference at Wikipedia is you have a community that's empowered to do something about it.

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