Wikipedia's open-source label conundrum

Despite a media habit of referring to Wikipedia as an open-source project, it looks only a little like such software efforts.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is often referred to as an "open-source" project because it is written, edited and policed by a global group of volunteers.

However, the open-source label doesn't really fit Wikipedia. "Free-for-all," in fact, may be a better match.

"Open source," at least the way it's been used in tech circles over the years, usually connotes successful, volunteer projects like the Linux operating system, which has strict controls and is monitored by a handful of people who make the call on what is handed over to the public.

That hardly describes Wikipedia, whose own founder doesn't even like to call it "open source." With Wikipedia entries, no one calls the shots, and anyone, even anonymous users, can make changes to the publicly used product.

Simply put, the kind of confidence attached to Linux shouldn't be attached to Wikipedia, which is more a grand and very subjective experiment in collective writing than a rigid engineering project.

Two scandals have made that point clear. Last week, a former journalist named John Seigenthaler published an op-ed in USA Today blasting the service for an anonymously written article that had been on the site for four months linking him to the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Then, former MTV host and podcasting pioneer Adam Curry was to fellow contributors to podcasting technology in the Wikipedia article on the subject.

In response, The New York Times, for one, has banned reporters from using the Wikipedia as a research resource, according to a posting Wednesday at Poynter Online.

The editors at the Gray Lady who made that decision have a good point. Unlike Linux, Wikipedia has no central editor like programmer extraordinaire Linus Torvalds and his small cadre of managers, who make the final decision on what goes in the software. Wikipedia is always being modified, so there's never really a "production version" that's been tested and deemed reliable. And because Wikipedia makes it easy for contributions to be made anonymously, it lacks the accountability that forces open-source software developers to offer up their best work.

Credit and accountability
Most important, programmers relish taking credit for their contributions. That gives them credibility among other coders, makes them accountable when they produce something that doesn't work, and maybe even helps them land a good job.

"It takes two years to get 'street cred' in Linux software development," said Matt Asay, the founder of the Open Source Business Conference, a series of business conferences on open-source technology. "The time frame might be different with different projects, but the system is basically the same: There are only small groups of submitters. And it all has to be filtered through captains or those who have final access to the code."

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