A Static and Authoritative Wikipedia
posted by Daniel Solove
Wikipedia’s advocates like to tout its dynamic nature: Volunteers can quickly respond to new developments and errors in the collaborative online encyclopedia by adding or changing entries themselves.
So it may seem odd that Wikipedia volunteers are now working on a static version on CD, a preliminary version of which was released earlier this month.
The goal is to extend Wikipedia to those with limited or no Internet access. Success with the CD could ultimately lead to Wikipedia in book or other forms. . . .
The development comes as the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 36 percent of U.S. adult Internet users have consulted Wikipedia — 8 percent on any given day. The telephone-based study issued Tuesday also found Wikipedia usage higher among college graduates and younger Internet users. . . .
Since its founding in 2001, the reference has grown to more than 1.7 million articles in the English language alone.
The Wikipedia CD will have only a subset of that — about 2,000 articles, with a heavy emphasis on geography, literature and other topics that won’t change much the way current events and controversial subjects might.
This development got me thinking of an idea that could help solve two of the biggest problems of Wikipedia: (1) since anybody can edit an entry, there’s often information of dubious reliability; and (2) entries frequently change as they are edited and updated, thus making any citation (gasp!) to Wikipedia even more problematic since the facts being cited to might no longer exist in the entry.
These problems are especially important because Wikipedia is being widely cited in scholarship and judicial opinions.
Wikipedia should create “approved” static versions of certain articles, which do not readily change and which are reviewed and approved by a professional editor or expert. In other words, Wikipedia could select special editors with expertise in certain areas, vet their credentials, and have them do a thorough edit of an entry. The entry would then be frozen as a special version. People could still edit and change the entry, but the special version would be readily available for those who wanted to rely on the entry for citation purposes.
Wikipedia already comes close to doing this. It has certain trusted editors and it does archive older versions of entries. But to make Wikipedia reliable enough to cite, some changes have to be made. A good system must be developed to ensure that trusted editors have the appropriate expertise — Wikipedia must avoid being conned by a charlatan. And it must be easy to find the expert-approved entry, which must be stable and free from modification after the expert reviewer has edited and approved it. With these changes, these special Wikipedia entries might be reliable enough to cite.