Wikipedia Walks Line Between Openness, Control

Wikipedia’s wild popularity has been matched recently by the amount of controversy surrounding the site, a Web-based encyclopedia that is open to anyone who wants to contribute and add to any of the information.

That is, almost anyone, and almost any of Wikipedia’s information. The site has come under fire for accuracy after fallacies were left to sit on the site for months, and more recently Wikipedia is reportedly restricting access to only those who have been registered, as well as protecting some controversial entries from editing. This function is typically open to anyone who can access the free Web site.

Despite recent criticisms, the protection of Wikipedia entries that might be altered inaccurately or maliciously is logical and necessary, Basex CEO and Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira told TechNewsWorld.

“The ability to place some limitations so that someone out of the blue can’t come to the site and make a change is common sense,” Spira said, referring to restrictions on some Wikipedia entries that require registration before adding or editing.

Open to a Point

Recent reports indicate that Wikipedia, which has grown to more than 1.2 million encyclopedic online entries with Web links, is also trying to head off reversion and rewriting battles by temporarily freezing controversial entries.

The site, which promotes core contributors through a peer-review process, also restricts access to some entries from users who have not been registered four days or more.

Wikipedia’s creator and founder, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, has downplayed the impact of the restrictions and controls on the overall openness of Wikipedia.

Wales, who now heads the Wikimedia Foundation nonprofit that operates Wikipedia and promotes the availability of free information, has said the key to Wikipedia is its openness.

“I’m 100 percent committed to a goal of a ‘traditional encylopedia or better’ quality for Wikipedia, and all of our social rules should revolve around that,” Wales said on the group’s site. “Openness and inclusiveness are indispensable for us, but these are our radical means to our radical ends.”

Veracity Tested

There have also been criticisms over the accuracy of Wikipedia entries — which included a fictional tie between the Kennedy assassinations and former White House aide John Seigenthaler — from academia and others, including Seigenthaler, who penned an op-ed piece about the matter last year.

In addition to Wikipedia lookalikes and more specialized versions of the collaborative, online encyclopedia, there have also been anti-Wikipedia sites established that are critical of the site, its editorial practices, and major contributors.

Wales and Wikipedia, championed by search giant Google and a number of free and open source software (FOSS) supporters, have confronted the barbs by stressing Wikipedia does not purport to be, nor should it be considered, a reliable source on its own.

Democracy Experiment

Wikipedia’s success, which puts it among the top-ranked information sites on the Web, is a product of its underlying democratic principles, where subjects are presented neutrally and participation is open, Spira said.

“Someone was bound to create the first Web-based, collaborative encyclopedia, and that’s what Wikipedia has done,” he said. “This is one of those things that works very well on the Web.”

However, Spira stressed that business and publishing are not democratic, and indicated Wikipedia remains more of a social experiment than “the ultimate reference.”

“It’s important to differentiate that,” he said.

Truth With Age

Spira predicted more controls on Wikipedia and its data, stressing the fact that the site’s contributors — both core and casual entry makers and editors — cannot fact check everything on the site.

At the same time, no large data resource, including traditional hard copy encyclopedia, should be considered or trusted as completely accurate and infallible, Spira added. He said Wikipedia’s idea that over time, its entries are read, updated and corrected for facts, does not mean the site could be considered entirely accurate.

“The question is, can you place reliance on something because eventually it will be right?” he said. “Anybody doing research should not rely on one source.”

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