Growing pains for Wikipedia

After two scandals in one week, Wikipedia's founder decides to make a change to the anyone-can-contribute encyclopedia.

For Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, last week was a tough one. And he's going to change the ground rules for the popular anyone-can-contribute encyclopedia because of it.

First, in a Nov. 29 op-ed piece in USA Today, a former administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy lambasted the free online reference work for an article that suggested he may have been involved in the assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

Then, on Dec. 1, a new flurry of attention came when former MTV VJ and podcasting pioneer Adam Curry was references to other people's seminal podcasting work in an article about the hot new digital medium.

To critics of Wikipedia--which, in a spin on the open-source model, lets anyone create and edit entries--the news was further proof that the service has no accountability and no place in the world of serious information gathering.

"Wales, in a recent C-SPAN interview...insisted that his Web site is accountable and that his community of thousands of volunteer editors...corrects mistakes within minutes," former Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler wrote in USA Today. "My experience refutes that...For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin."

Wales has dealt with criticism for years, and he's sensitive to it. He knows that many people worry that Wikipedia's self-policing process can't possibly keep up with the massive number of new articles that crop up on the site, and the edits that appear in existing entries. The cybertome, after all, is home to millions of articles--nearly 850,000 in English alone, with many other entries in dozens of additional languages. In October, the English-language site hosted 1,515 new articles per day.

But Wales said the Seigenthaler incident was an aberration.

"The system failed in this case," Wales said. "A bad entry was kept for some time until (Seigenthaler) actually fixed it himself. Basically, what I would say is we're looking right now, and over the weekend, at this particular incident and what went wrong. It seems like the key issue is we're having some growing pains."

When Wikipedia articles are first published, they show up on a special page, and volunteers--so-called new-page patrollers--monitor entries in their area of interest.

Wales said the Seigenthaler article not only escaped the notice of this corps of watchdogs, but it also became a kind of needle in a haystack: The page remained unchanged for so long because it wasn't linked to from any other Wikipedia articles, depriving it of traffic that might have led to closer scrutiny.

Also, Wales said, the entry was unusual in that it was posted by an anonymous user--most new articles are published by registered members, who are more likely to be held responsible for what they write.

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