Fluctuating Specifications for Online Encyclopedias

by Brian Steel

By the mid-1990s, the information needs of the growing Internet market were being served not only by online versions of traditional commercial encyclopedias like the Encyclopedia Britannica, Grolier’s New Book of Knowledge and the World Book Encyclopedia but by Microsoft’s vigorously marketed Encarta, which had begun to attract significant numbers of online customers. Both Encarta (http://encarta.msn.com) and Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com) have maintained a high online profile during the innovative cyber-developments to be described below. (Surfers may even browse the articles of the 1911 (E.B.) edition at http://www.1911encyclopedia.com.)A much more recent online presence, still in its beta stage, is the High Beam Encyclopedia (www.encyclopedia.com), which offers articles from the sixth edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia as well as newspaper and magazine references and a commercial backnumbers service for newspapers, magazines and journals.

At the turn of the century, Larry Sanger was hired by Jimmy Wales to organise the (short-lived) Nupedia project which was launched in March 2000. The aim was to attract encyclopedia entries from volunteer experts for eventual publishing as free content after peer review and approval. During the following twelve months of snail-pace progress, Sanger proposed to speed up the process with preliminary versions in wiki form (Wikipedia), involving voluntary contributions from any Users. Within a further year, this idea had produced such rapid progress that the original idea of articles by experts was discarded and Sanger left the company shortly afterwards. (Ironically, Wales would eventually be forced to reconsider and partially reinstate the experts theme into Wikipedia.)

In the intervening seven years, Wikipedia, financed by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation and supported by the enthusiastic efforts of thousands of eager volunteers, has been experiencing exponential growth, not only in English but in many other languages. It currently dominates the online encyclopedia field. There is no denying that the 2 million entries of this seething online co-operative venture is of incalculable daily value to its millions of users as a quick free source of reliable data on basic factual topics. On other topics it has proved to be much less satisfactory. (See ‘Wikipedia’s Grudging Recognition of its Self-imposed Limitations’.)

However, with Wikipedia’s success have come many problems and controversies and subsequent necessary adjustments to its rigid structure. For example, the following new departure was announced in mid-2006 with reference to the German Wikipedia:

“The German Wikipedia is set to introduce editing restrictions that may spread to other language versions if successful. This involves identifying a set of “trusted users” and allowing only their changes to be instantly visible. New contributors’ work would be moderated by these users, who might be selected on the basis of how long they have been on the site and the number of their edits that have gone unreverted.”

(http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Wikipedia)

Incidentally, the following brief extracts from an announcement about the German version of Wikipedia (with its 700,000 articles) is of particular interest to those used to the conditions under which the English Wikipedia has notched up over 2 million articles of varying quality:

“The German Wikipedia is different from the English Wikipedia in a number of aspects.

There are severe rules of relevancy. Contemporary people usually have to reach a high level of fame before an article on them is allowed. […]

Many controversial articles are protected for months and cannot be edited by unsubscribed or recently subscribed users.”

The progress of Wikipedia in its initial rigid form has produced a great deal of alternative Internet activity from disillusioned editors, critics as well as from users and editors who have preferred to set up their own ‘forks’ or alternative Wiki encyclopedias to produce what they see as less inhibited or more permanent results. The most interesting of these forks are the following ones set up by non-English-speaking groups:

Germany: http://www.wikiweise.de

Russia: http://www.wikiznanie.ru

Spanish-speaking countries: wikilibre.org/index.php/

Perhaps the most interesting ‘fork’ is on display at http://en.wikipilipinas.org

WikiPilipinas is a very interesting but also very localised offshoot, launched in mid 2007. It deals with Philippine-related topics, is non-academic, allows original research and is not bound by the NPOV principle. It presently contains 57,000 articles.

“WikiPilipinas is an encyclopedia dedicated to anything and everything that matters to Filipinos and the Philippines. It is an encyclopedia of Philippine content and includes elements of an almanac, directory and community pages. A centralized repository of Philippine content, it is intended to serve Filipinos anywhere in the world. Wikipilipinas allows Filipinos to document themselves in a manner they deem proper, whether or not it agrees with what foreign sources say.”

A strong indication that the management of Wikipedia is getting tired of the growing intensity of public criticism and disparagement of its inflexible rules and the instability of some of its articles through constant changes or “edit wars” is the recently launched feeder project ‘Veropedia’ (http://en.veropedia.com), to which Wikipedia writers of ‘good’ articles can apply for their articles to be saved INTACT.

Officially, Wikipedia announces this late 2007 development thus:

“Veropedia is a free, advertising-supported Internet encyclopedia project launched in late October 2007.[1][2]

“The site is based around collaboration within Wikipedia, whereby Wikipedia articles that meet Veropedia’s reliability criteria are chosen by its editors, scraped, and then a stable version of the article is kept on Veropedia. Any improvements required for articles to reach a standard suitable for Veropedia occur on Wikipedia itself. This model is intended to provide benefits to both projects with Wikipedia providing a large amount of free content suitable for potential improvement, and Veropedia contributors providing improvements and fact-checking within Wikipedia articles.[1][2][3]

As of April 2008 the site, still in beta, has checked and imported over 5700 articles[4] from the English Wikipedia into its public database.[5] Although Veropedia intends to eventually support itself completely through advertising as of January 2008 the project is run mainly from personal savings, investments and loans of those involved in the project.[6]

This novel choice for seasoned Wikipedian editors is openly solicited by a Wikipedia User named Moreschi (and perhaps other editors) with some of the Wikipedia edits he makes. They link (through a superscript hyperlink) to the following announcement:

“If you’ve written a quality article, here’s a suggestion about how to save your stable, quality version, and preserve it from vandalism, spam, POV-pushing, and the addition of inaccuracies that so often decrease the quality of Wikipedia articles over time. Want to really preserve your classy work for humanity? See it expert-reviewed? Get it uploaded to Veropedia (FAQ, see also my user and talk pages.)! You don’t have to do this yourself; though we welcome new contributors, if you feel you haven’t got the time, simply send an email to us suggesting your article as suitable for upload, or any other you might know of that you think good enough. To do this, go to the Main Page that I linked to above, put your mouse on the Contacts tab, and click “Suggest an article”. Cheers, Moreschi Talk 13:38, 10 November 2007 (UTC)”

Moreschi also makes this astonishing further comment on his Wikipedia User page:

“Veropedia is going to be taking up more and more of my time, and I would encourage others who care about Wikipedia’s articles to join in with our efforts there and help out. The best of my work has already been saved there as a quality stable version, and for that reason I do not regret the time I have spent on Wikipedia since March 2006. I’m not overly optimistic about Wikipedia’s condition at the moment, but it is not beyond repair. All it would take is for more to understand that truth is a woman, and she will not let herself be assailed with the cold bludgeons of policy.”

“I will still do everything important: contribute regularly to articles, put in the hours at the coalface at the Opera Project, write and discover quality content for Veropedia.”

The recent appearance of rival fledgeling Web encyclopedia Citizendium and Google’s announced Knol project (still under wraps since December 2007) add further incentives for incorporating greater flexibility into the Wikipedia system.

Citizendium [= Citizens’ Compendium], a project in preparation since 2005 by Larry Sanger.

Launched in early 2007, with the laudable aim of providing expert contributions under contributors’ own names, Citizendium also announced a feeder project called Eduzendium (proposed by Professor Sorin Matei) which would harness the talents of doctoral candidates. In spite of these attractive proposals, the project was not received very optimistically by experts as diverse as Professor Clay Shirky (a Wikimedia advisory board member) and Nicholas Carr, an eloquent critic of Wikipedia. After just over a year of publishing, the progress of this new online encyclopedia (with a non-charismatic name) does not seem very encouraging in terms of properly finished and approved articles.

Knol Web Encyclopedia

Announced in late 2007 by Google, also to consist of expert and peer-reviewed unalterable articles. Apart from one sample published, its initial work has so far been conducted in secret.

At the same time others have been setting up their own Wikipedia-derived encyclopedias and specialist groups have begun to offer restricted wiki-type encyclopedias.

Scholarpedia

A very serious scholarly restricted scientific Wiki, of value to specialists.

Conservapedia

Also aimed at a restricted audience, this wiki-based encyclopedia is written “from a socially and American Conservative Christian viewpoint” in order to counter a perceived “liberal, anti-Christian and anti-American bias” in Wikipedia. Its editorial policies are guided by the “Conservative Commandments”.

Also to be taken into consideration in a survey of online encyclopedias are the offerings of those organisations which (in accordance with Jimmy Wales’s expressed philosophy and wishes) have copied Wikipedia, or parts of it, to their own websites, some of which permit further editing by visitors. Since each site downloads the copies at different times, they enshrine versions of Wikipedia articles which may subsequently undergo significant amendments. Such cyber-debris may therefore be misleading, or may preserve fossilised versions of controversial Wikipedia articles which have (long) since been ‘reverted’ in ‘edit wars’.

Caveat lector! (Online Encyclopedia readers should take care!)

PS If all of these bewildering sources of information become too much, it may be time for a brief ‘R & R’ visit to Uncyclopedia(hosted by Daniel Brandt).

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