Wikipedia co-founder plans 'expert' rival

Larry Sanger plans to launch this week an alternative to the free online encyclopedia.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
One of Wikipedia's founders and closest critics is launching an alternative to the free online encyclopedia this week.

Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia and the site's former editor-in-chief, is launching a rival site called Citizendium. It will include user registration and editorial controls to govern user-submitted articles, unlike the free-for-all submission process that reigns on Wikipedia. With "gentle" controls in place, Sanger said Citizendium will naturally weed out so-called trolls from posting obscenities or biased information.

"Wikipedia is amazing. It has grown in breadth and depth, and the articles are remarkably good given the system that is in place. I merely think that we can do better," Sanger said. "There are a number of problems with the system that can be solved, and by solving those we can end up with an even better massive encyclopedia."

Citizendium is not starting from scratch. It will be a "fork" of the open-source code of Wikipedia, meaning that it will replicate the existing database of articles and then evolve, through user participation, into a new compendium of its own. According to its FAQ, Citizendium does not aim to harm Wikipedia.

"Are you attempting to shut Wikipedia down? No. That makes up no part of our aim. We wish instead to leverage the fantastic resource that is Wikipedia and use it to create something better," the FAQ states. "Aha! So you are trying to outdo Wikipedia, aren't you? Well, of course. Why else would we be proposing a fork?"

Wikipedia representatives did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Sanger said an invitation-only, pilot version of his soon-to-be-nonprofit site will launch this week, but wider release has yet to be determined.

Since early 2001, when Sanger helped get Wikipedia off the ground with co-founder Jimmy Wales, the service has become one of the most popular research tools on the Web and one of its fastest-growing sites, with more than 2 million articles in 229 languages. In September, Wikipedia attracted more than 33 million unique visitors, up 162 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to research firm Nielsen NetRatings.

But Wikipedia has run into some trouble in its precipitous rise to popularity. 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 in August, comedian Stephen Colbert was banned from Wikipedia after he encouraged his television viewers to make whimsical edits to the site's articles.

While Wikipedia has moved to address some of the concerns with new technology, other encyclopedia projects have tried to fill demand for academic information. Digital Universe, for example, launched earlier this year as an expert-controlled encyclopedia project, which was also started with Sanger's help. Its first initiative, called the Encyclopedia of Earth, has 400 articles written and reviewed by volunteer environmental experts from around the world.

Sanger took a leave of absence from Digital Universe to start Citizendium--a combination of "citizen" and "compendium"--and take a different approach to the online encyclopedia. Like Wikipedia, he wants the service to evolve with public participation.

But unlike Wikipedia, Citizendium will have established volunteer editors and "constables," or administrators who enforce community rules. In essence, the service will observe a separation of church and state, with a representative republic, Sanger said.

"These so called constables will play a similar role to administrators in Wikipedia, but they will not be able to make decisions on how articles read. The editors will be responsible for making decisions about content but they will not be able to ban people," he said.

Citizendium is soliciting experts in their fields to post and oversee articles on any given subject. Another difference from Wikipedia is that Citizendium will require that members register with their real name to post to the wiki. That, Sanger said, should also discourage shenanigans.

"The idea is we will be inviting people from around the world to work together under the gentle guidance of experts," he said.

CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman contributed to this report.