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Wikipedia examines contributor credentials

By Alun Williams

Posted on 12 Mar 2007 at 18:23

The founder of Wikipedia - the online, user-generated encyclopedia - is proposing a change in the way contributors' credentials are verified.

James Wales is moving to protect the reputation of Wikipedia following revelations last week that one frequent contributor - who had been promoted to the status of 'arbitrator' - had invented their qualification. Specifically, that the writer "Essjay" was not, as he claimed, a professor of theology.

Wales is looking to establish what he describes as three basic principles. The first is that the validation process must be scalable - that it is in the hands of the community itself, not the Wikipedia Office directly. He also writes that the process should be 'socially nondisruptive', i.e. there is not a sudden mass prohibition on claiming unverifiable credentials.

Finally, he also emphasises the Wikipedia tradition of not automatically deferring to a would-be contributor's. 'We edit together in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and "I am a PhD so shut up" is never the right answer,' he writes in a posting on the encyclopedia's Community Portal. 'Reasoned discourse and policies such as [Wikipedia's existing handling of attribution and primary and secondary sources] are the right answer.'

He suggests using a set of defined userboxes for credentials which will be linked to a subpage of the user page.

Note, however, that these are proposals for the Wikipedia community to consider - Wales is keen to work with contributors rather than impose a ruling on the community.

You can read the full posting of 'Jimbo Wales' on the Wikipedia Community Portal here.

Reaction has not been wholly positive. The New York Times quotes one Florence Devouard, James Wales's successor as the head of Wikipedia Foundation board, as being 'not supportive' of the proposal: 'I think what matters is the quality of the content, which we can improve by enforcing policies such as "cite your source", not the quality of credentials showed by an editor,' she said.

The paper also quoted Wales describing the problem as evidence of 'growing pains' for the site.

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