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Can German engineering fix Wikipedia?

An experiment planned for the country's version of the online encyclopedia could be a blueprint for improved accuracy.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
An experimental feature planned for the German version of Wikipedia could eventually improve the quality of editing for the online encyclopedia and open its front page to public edits for the first time in years.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the feature, which was conceived of and will likely be instituted by members of the German Wikipedia community by the end of August, is designed as a way to protect articles from being vandalized.

Because nearly anyone can edit just about any of the more than 2 million Wikipedia articles in 229 national versions and have those edits instantly appear, malicious edits of an article so that it contains obscenity or fiction have been one of the more serious problems Wikipedia has faced.

As a result, some of the more controversial articles, such as that on President Bush, are sometimes locked.

Last fall, concerns over the veracity of Wikipedia articles came to a head after it was discovered that the entry on former Robert F. Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler suggested he had been involved in the presidential candidate's assassination. And earlier this month, comedian Stephen Colbert was banned from Wikipedia after he encouraged his television viewers to make meaningless edits to the site's articles.

But now, Wales said, administrators of the German Wikipedia--the second-largest version after English--have come up with a system that could protect live articles, especially obscure ones that escape regular scrutiny from hawkeyed community members intent on maintaining accuracy.

As always, anyone will be able to make article edits. But it would take someone who has been around Wikipedia for some yet-to-be-determined period of time--and who, therefore, has passed a threshold of trustworthiness--to make the edits live on the public site. If someone vandalizes an article, the edits would not be approved.

"We want to let anybody edit," Wales said, "but we don't want to show vandalized versions."

On the surface, it may not sound like a major step forward, but to Wales and others in the community, the feature, if it proves successful on the German site, could mean a significant reduction in the number of defaced public articles.

Open front door?
And if that's the case, Wales said, it could give Wikipedia the means to finally open its front page to public editing for the first time since one vandal repeatedly posted obscene images on it years ago.

"It would be fun for me to announce to the press that the front page of Wikipedia is open for public editing for the first time in five years," Wales said.

Of course, there are several hurdles still to be cleared and there are no guarantees that the planned German feature will work. Unless and until it does, the intended benefits won't extend to the main site.

The feature "raises a lot of what-ifs," Wales said. "What if articles get stale" because no one pushes forward new edits? And, he said, there's no concrete agreement about who would be granted authority to push forward articles, though it could conceivably be anyone who has been a registered Wikipedia user for as little as four days.

Another thought would be that edits go live automatically after some pre-determined period of time that could be as little as 10 minutes, Wales said.

To Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, any potential changes to Wikipedia's editing rules run up against philosophies of how much freedom the site's users are given.

"It's all a question of at what point in the process do you want to exercise central control," Niles said.

Niles added that, ultimately, he is in favor of Wikipedia policies that result in users taking as much responsibility for their work as possible. Currently, anonymous users can edit articles.

"I'm really into sourcing," he said. "I think the most effective way to do things is to put your name on (articles) and responsibility follows quickly."

In the past, Wales has talked about creating a so-called "Wikipedia 1.0," which would be a static version of the encyclopedia free from vandalism. That point is still far off, but he said the German proposal is a step in that direction.

"You'd be able to...pull Wikipedia articles," Wales said, "and be pretty sure you're not going to get a giant penis picture."

And while most people assume that major changes to Wikipedia always originate on the English version, Wales said the proposed feature could put a lie to that notion.

"This is going to be a time when (the Germans) are going to be first to an innovation," he said.

In the end, Niles thinks Wales and other Wikipedia policymakers should get the benefit of the doubt.

"They've earned the right to experiment with it in any way they see fit," Niles said, "so I'm rooting for them to get it right and make it even better than it is."