Wiki and the U student

Wikipedia creates controversy over accuracy.

JP Leider

Whether it is used for recreational reading, to determine the precise measurements for setting up beer pong or as preliminary research for a paper due the next day, Wikipedia is a necessity to many college students nationwide.

The common complaint of the Web-based, collaborative encyclopedia is that of credibility. Wikipedia allows users to edit any unlocked entry in the database, often anonymously.

Although a study in late 2005 by the science journal Nature found accuracy in Wikipedia relatively comparable to that of Encyclopedia Britannica, many still question whether it deserves placement among time-tested and accepted reference works.

This week, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is set to debut Citizendium, an online encyclopedia that will start off as a clone of the freely-licensed Wikipedia.

In the end, Citizendium aims to only vaguely resemble Wikipedia. It will allow general public participation, but not anonymously. It will also update entries unedited by the Citizendium community from Wikipedia.

Citizendium will break from the Wikipedia mold by using experts to oversee swaths of content. Wikipedia does not employ the theory of expert guidance.

Sanger said experts will be asked to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the general public.

“To be able to contribute to a reference work when it is being gently guided by experts sounds much more interesting, inviting and exciting than a bunch of amateurs trying to come to some sort of consensus view about things they don’t necessarily know very much about,” he said.

The concept of expert opinion holding more weight than the common man or woman has stirred up much of the Wikipedia community.

Professor John Riedl, an avid researcher of Wikipedia and wikis, sites that allow users to freely edit and share information, said while anonymous editing is detrimental to Wikipedia, trusting the public is “powerful.”

“That doesn’t mean shoddy work needs to be included; it’s always important to recognize it’s excellence that we have to seek,” he said. “But you don’t solely find excellence in people with Ph.D.s – I would rather seek excellence than seek credentials.”

Sanger said determining expertise in a subject depends on the subject, although traditional credentials will play a large role in rating expert capacity.

The idea of experts and academics collaborating with the general public in a wiki-endeavor on such a broad scale may sound novel, but Sanger tried his hand at a similar project – Nupedia, Wikipedia’s predecessor. Nupedia was more a freely licensed encyclopedia than a wiki, and only fully completed 24 articles before it shut down.

Wikis in academia

Graduate Instructor Krista Kennedy said Citizendium and Wikipedia cannot be judged against each other as “apples-to-apples.”

“The people who use and support Wikipedia, many do so because they believe in open source and open access,” she said.

Kennedy is researching Wikipedia and comparing it against an 18th century encyclopedia,

“I don’t think that particular group will be as supportive of Larry’s project,” Kennedy said of Wikipedians. “But you never know, (Citizendium and Wikipedia) might complement each other.”

Sanger said Citizendium is aiming for the utmost in credibility and could be a good starting point for research, but students should not cite Citizendium articles in academic works.

“Frankly, this should be obvious; the fact that people are talking about it at any length is kind of disappointing to me,” he said. “It says something rather sobering about the state of our education that we need to explain this.”

Clancy Ratliff, University alumna and assistant professor at East Carolina University, shared Sanger’s sentiments.

“Wikipedia is good for a quick and dirty definition of something, but for something serious like a research paper, I don’t think it’s an appropriate source,” she said. “As is the case with any encyclopedia, I want students to use articles and periodicals.”

Wikipedia is also controversial in academia because of its democratization of expertise, she said.

“What tends to be the case is if you say anything bad about Wikipedia, you’re (labeled an) ‘elitist,’ ” she said. “It’s a hard line approach to the argument, there’s not a lot of middle ground yet.”

Wikis and the U

Though University professors may balk if students cite Wikipedia in a term paper, more elect to bring wikis to campus.

The University hosts UMWiki, a site giving staff and students a crack at wiki-hosting.

Mark McCahill, assistant director of Academic and Distributed Computing Services, said he expects wiki use at the University to explode.

“We will see it used in more and more courses as the concept of collaboratively edited media gets loose in the world,” he said.

Wikis sound “just like what the (University’s) academic mission is about – jointly working to advance knowledge,” he said.

In the Institute of Technology, Riedl runs the University-hosted WikiLens.org,

WikiLens is an experimental wiki that allows users to recommend essentially whatever they desire to their peers.

“It’s an exploration of how far community maintenance can go,” he said. “What if the inmates are completely running the asylum? Every piece of data on WikiLens gets entered by the users.”

WikiLens.org is an offshoot of the more popular MovieLens.org, a non-wiki tool that recommends users movies based on their preferences of already-viewed movies.

In addition to recreation and research, wikis are also being utilized by the Masters of Education program on the University’s Duluth campus.

The hybrid program combines in-person and online learning and teaching.

Helen Mongan-Rallis, an associate professor and coordinator of the program, said wikis allow students to work together, regardless of location.

“We are using all types of different technologies that are allowing (students) to come together and share in the co-construction of knowledge in a way that wouldn’t be possible if they had to be face-to-face,” she said.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: LARRY SANGER TALKS TO THE DAILY

For this story, Larry Sanger spoke with the Daily about his new online endeavor, Citizendium. What follows are excerpts from that interview.

Briefly, what is The Citizendium for unfamiliar readers, and what is your vision for it?

The Citizendium is essentially an experimental new wiki project. It will begin life as a fork of Wikipedia ñ we’re going to start with all the content of Wikipedia and the project will evolve from there. The differences with Wikipedia are going to be several, but the main differences will be that we will involve experts as editors. They will be able to make decisions about how an article should read.

Editors will also be able to be able to designate certain versions of articles as approved. They will not be able to freeze articles or prevent members of the public from participating. In addition, another major difference is that the community is ñ I hope ñ going to be more mature. We’re going to require the use of real names. The community will be started within 6-12 months under a new charter which will formalize and define the policies and procedures of the project.

The short term goal is to clean the Augean Stables of Wikipedia. The long term goal is to create the finest encyclopedia in history. It might turn out that we will partner with some other group that will put the final finishing touches on stuff that we do, and we’d be essentially a halfway house between Wikipedia and more formal projects. Our aim right now is ñ we want to create the finest possible global free encyclopedia.

When will it go live?

Elements of the pilot project have already been kicked off. For the next month or two, a group of people who have been invited and who have applied and been accepted to participate in a private beta development in the project will be doing so. Hopefully we’ll prepare a good number of representative articles and firm up some policy decisions. After that, we’ll open up the project to much broader public participation. The idea is the public, if they apply, will be able to participate very soon in the pilot project. The actual participation is going to be much more carefully controlled in the first few months.

How will you draw loyal Wikipedians to your new venture?

The goal is not to draw Wikipedians to the venture at all, although as a matter of fact, it seems that most of the people who have been talking on mailing lists and forums and in our planning wiki are ex-Wikipedians and current Wikipedians too. There are a lot of disaffected Wikipedians.

Our goal is not to mine the Wikipedia community for participants. In fact, if someone thinks that Wikipedia is the finest project they can conceive of then we urge them to stay with Wikipedia and not give Citizendium another thought. For those people who feel the project does not give a common sense amount of weight to expert opinion and who think the project has become poorly managed in various other ways, they will be more than welcome to join us.

Many students utilize Wikipedia both recreationally and academically, but often run into challenges when attempting the latter. Will your new project address the issue of Wiki-ed information in the classroom?

I taught college for a number of years, and any good college student ought to know that an encyclopedia, it doesn’t matter what kind of encyclopedia, even if it is a specialized encyclopedia, is not an appropriate source for any sort of paper. Period. It follows just on the strength of that that the Citizendium merely being a reference work is not an appropriate source for a paper. Frankly, this should be obvious. The fact that people are talking about it at any length is kind of disappointing to me. It says something rather sobering about the state of our education that we need to explain this. It is one of the first things that you learn about sources for academic work in post-high school.

Do you see a role for Citizendium anywhere in academia?

Of course. The idea is it will be good enough for professors to be able to send their students and students to get reliable information from. I know a lot of students use Wikipedia as a place to start to learn about a subject. For that purpose it’s fine. I actually think, as a place to start to get some information, it’s a fine resource. Approved articles on Citizendium hopefully will be more reliable than articles on Wikipedia.

What is the future of wikis and shared authorship in general?

It’s hard to say. We’re in an exciting time and people are, as they should be, trying out a zillion different things. Most of them aren’t going to work, and some of them are. What animates me, what makes me excited and what one of the main motivations behind the Citizendium project is that academics, at all levels, can work together in a Wikipedia-fashion. The idea is that if University of Minnesota professors were to get together and collaborate on various kinds of resources, educational resources and reference material and so forth, the results would be absolutely amazing. I don’t mean just professors ñ but professors and other professionals working with graduate students and undergraduates.

Everyone working together but under the direction of people who have really studied whatever the subject is. If we can get the knowledge leaders of society together and teach them the wiki magic, the results of that could be absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, there is an ethos, there is a culture, behind Web 2.0 stuff, that say it all has to be in order to work there can’t be any sort of distinctions among the participants. Some people have taken that point of view rather too far. By engaging experts as project leaders, something that hasn’t happened very much at all outside of strictly experts-only projects, a lot of amazing things can start happening.

What is an expert?

It depends on the field. An expert is someone who has studied a subject for a very long time in a particular way. Operationally you can define an expert as someone who has read for many years on a specialized subject, someone who has studied with people who have studied that subject much longer than they have, have had their ideas criticized by them; another important part of becoming an expert is to publish or at least make your ideas known and get critical feedback from others.

In many fields, having years of experience doing actual practical work. Once you’ve gone through this process, typically someone who has actually survived the process of study and practice and experience in this way has developed her understanding so completely that when a question that would exercise a beginner for hours will require seconds or minutes on the part of the expert. There is a long process of study that is required before someone can quickly and reliably make judgments about specialized topics. What those requirements are differ from subject to subject. The objective requirements about what is necessary to know about different fields depends on the field.

How do you plan to recruit experts to contribute to this project?

That’s an interesting question. Frankly, I don’t want to say it’s simply a matter of ‘if you build it they will come,’ but it is something like that. We’re going to be getting a great deal of press attention hopefully over the next couple of months as we launch. Hopefully a lot of potential editors will hear about us. We’ll be posting to mailing lists calls for participation.

Are you planning to try and get the backing of some kind of prominent research institution?

The short answer is yes. We are in ongoing discussions with Purdue. They are providing our mailing lists. Certainly, I think relationships of various kinds with universities would probably make this project take off faster and be of higher quality than it would otherwise.

A computer science professor I spoke with here at the University said, speaking of your new project, that while striving for excellence is important, expert guidance could cause the common man or woman to lose the feeling of control that is so enthralling about Wikipedia. How might you respond to that?

Editors will be asked to work shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary contributors. Frankly, as someone who is decidedly not an expert about almost everything, I look forward to the opportunity to be able to work alongside people who are experts in different fields and have my ideas taken seriously. To be able to contribute to a reference work when it is being gently guided by experts sounds much more interesting, inviting and exciting than a bunch of amateurs trying to come to some sort of consensus view about things they don’t necessarily know very much about.

As a follow-up: the professor said, quote “You don’t solely find excellence in people with PhDs. I would rather seek excellence than seek credentials.” What are your thoughts?

I agree with that. We will not be requiring a PhD. But we do need to see objective non-politicizable evidence of a person’s ability to speak authoritatively about a subject. In other words, short of being able to get into other people’s heads and interview them at great length, what means can we use other than various kinds of real world credentials? We don’t just mean PhD degrees; we mean papers, conferences, professional positions, organizations and so forth.

The idea is if we want to avoid the project becoming entirely politicized; we have to have some sort of objective indicator. Any indicator is going to be imperfect. But we need some sort of objective, non politicizable indicators of authority and expertise, I don’t see how we can do that without some combination of traditional credentials.

Several months ago, Wikipedia was in the news in Minnesota – At a public school, a sex offender who pretended to be British Royalty edited a Wikipedia entry to support his fake character: the fifth Duke of Cleveland.

-I heard about that.

People, including administration, believed he was real in part because of his Wikipedia entry.

-That was pretty foolish.

While Citizendium will require real names from authors, if it is importing information from Wikipedia regularly, how will you protect against more entries like the Fifth Duke of Cleveland?

What we’re going to do is we will be displaying Wikipedia articles. If we haven’t edited an article ourselves, we will refresh our copy of an article from the latest Wikipedia article on a fairly regular basis. We will be marking all of these articles as saying it comes from Wikipedia, and if you see mistake in it or want to improve it, feel free to edit it. In doing that you will be essentially forking that particular article.

You will be making a local copy of it, and taking responsibility from then on. The point is: we are going to host a mirror of Wikipedia as a jumping off point for people to get start on better versions of articles. That doesn’t answer the question ñ how we’re going to avoid things like the Duke of Cleveland. The answer to that is simply that we are going to have higher quality standards and we’re going to have the involvement of experts who will be able to tell people that there is no such thing as the Fifth Duke of Cleveland.

As an expert-guided wiki would ostensibly lend more credibility to the entity, if you could create an entry about anything and pass it off as completely true, what would it be?

I’m sorry I just can’t help you there. I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud and borrow the phrase ñ I’m a little too committed to the truth to be able to answer that question.

What is your take on Wikiality?

It’s a good joke, basically. There might be some people who are gullible enough or who are enthralled enough by the Wikipedia model that if something appears on Wikipedia than it really is probably true and is a good enough source for them. But I think most people recognize that there’s a difference between Wikiality and reality.