They say that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but over the last year, the venerable (in Internet time) Wikipedia online encyclopedia (http://www.wikipedia.org) has faced an international furor over its reliability and accuracy. The collaborative processes used to create the service have been tweaked, but concerns still rumble through the Web. Now one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, has begun development of a competitive service, the Citizendium or "Citizen's Compendium" (http://www.citizendium.org). Sanger was one of the first and most authoritative voices to question the untrammeled openness of the Wikipedia procedures. While retaining his true believer status in support of the wiki model of public collaboration, Sanger intends to generate a new community ethos that defers to the authority of expert editors and requires contributors to use their own names, without the shield of anonymity. The main source for Citizendium content, however, will consist of Wikipedia itself as reviewed, edited, supplemented, and vetted by Citizendium. Original articles will also be part of the new service.
"Wikipedia has accomplished great things, but the world can do even better," said Sanger, editor in chief of Citizendium. "By engaging expert editors, eliminating anonymous contribution, and launching a more mature community under a new charter, a much broader and more influential group of people and institutions will be able to improve upon Wikipedia's extremely useful, but often uneven work. The result will be not only enormous and free, but reliable."
Wikipedia and the new Citizendium operate under the GNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) rules, which means content can be shared relatively freely as long as all parties follow benign and courteous behavior—e.g., crediting the creators or issuers of the information for their work. Oddly enough, when looked at from a world that seems filled with litigating content holders, this means that Citizendium can tap all the Wikipedia content and Wikipedia can then tap Citizendium's content, as long as it credits Citizendium for whatever contributions Wikipedia incorporates.
Among wiki cognoscenti, the Citizendium initiative is referred to as a "progressive fork." The new service will first "mirror" Wikipedia content. Then, it will not only add, change, and edit content currently in Wikipedia, it will also stamp acceptable content as "approved." Citizendium will regularly refresh its copies of Wikipedia content. If entries from Wikipedia have changed, but Citizendium has not yet made any changes or edits, then it will upload the most recent Wikipedia article. If Citizendium has changed an article, it will not substitute the changed Wikipedia piece. Citizendium contributors will also start their own brand-new articles.
All "citizens" now joining Citizendium must agree to the statement of fundamental policies. In time the service will draft a charter that may, according to Sanger, be five times the length of the current statement. The full charter will have "more details on different roles in the project. It will be relatively vague like any charter, but very difficult to change."
The structure of the new service involves three layers of participation: "[E]ditors will be the experts in their fields and [will] decide on content questions; authors or the rank and file contributors; and constables or community managers, who make decisions on behavioral matters." As Sanger described it, an editor with a problem author might call a constable, who would have the power to ban a contributor. Sanger describes it as "a division of powers. The constable is not working for the editor. Editors can't just order constables around, but, if an editor doesn't get satisfaction from a constable, they could appeal to other constables." Currently the chief constable is Ruth Ifcher, an early key player in Nupedia and Wikipedia. David Marshall is the managing editor.
Last week the Citizendium Foundation launched a 6-week pilot project, accepting applications from potential contributors for invitations to join the program (http://www.citizendium.org/cfa.html). The site has e-mail discussion lists on policies, an active Web-based forum, and a planning wiki. At this point, much of the discussion concerns setting up rules and procedures for the project. However, in the short time since its inception, Sanger said that they have already gathered "close to 400 applications and identified over 200 plausible editors. Between three quarters [and] two thirds of the people have Ph.D.'s (sic) and come from very distinguished universities."
As for predictions of success, Sanger made it clear that he didn't like to make predictions, but he did have hopes. "I hope we will have on the order of many thousands of registered editors over the next year, at least one registered editor in every major university in the world. It's possible and, with the right sort of recruitment approach, we can probably achieve that. I hope in our first year, we manage to edit tens of thousands of articles, though I very much doubt we'll get very far into the Wikipedia corpus." Sanger recognized that the problem of anonymity or pseudonymity was a thorny one. "We've already thought through the in's and out's of requiring real names. Solving the problems is non-trivial." However, he felt that "we have people who agree with our fundamental policies."
As to the nitty-gritty issues of financial support, voluntarism seems the main basis. Citizendium receives in-kind donations of support and hardware from universities like Purdue and corporations like Steadfast Networks; grants from companies that want to use their content (though the companies could just use the GNU FDL rules to get it at no charge); sponsorship, with possible subtle credits similar to PBS announcements; individual donations; and a mysterious, "exciting and innovative" funding model "that will be revealed in good time." The Citizendium Foundation has begun the application process for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
What chance does Citizendium have to compete with Wikipedia? It certainly has a mountain to climb. Wikipedia is a veteran service in Web years, launched in January 2001 and currently ranked as one of the Web's 20 most visited sites. Many other sites, such as Answers.com, mirror or "fork" to its pages. On the other hand, the controversy over reliability, accuracy, and neutrality may have created a market for change. (For coverage of the controversy, go to Paula Berinstein's cover story in the March 2006 issue of Searcher, "Wikipedia and Britannica: The Kid's All Right (And So's the Old Man)," at http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/mar06/berinstein.shtml.)
The greatest difficulty will probably lie in just trying to establish an infrastructure that can hope to reliably review and improve on the 5 million articles in Wikipedia or even just the 1.4 million in the English-language version. Citizendium is currently only aiming at the English language version of Wikipedia, though that may change in the future.
And the target is a moving one. Wikipedia keeps adding and revising articles endlessly. For example, almost immediately after the appearance of the press release announcing the founding of Citizendium, a new entry appeared in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizendium). I just verified that URL and noticed that the last revision was dated Oct. 27, 2006. The article may have some bias in it however. Sanger assured me that the CZ shorthand used internally for Citizendium is not really leading to the new service calling itself the "Caesar wiki." Perhaps the more free-wheeling folks at Wikipedia see imperial forces where others see only lovers of truth.