Wikipedia Founder Seeks Limits on Editing

Jan 26, 2009

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has recommended reigning in edits of entries to the free-access online encyclopedia. The result has been an extensive dialogue in which the German Wikipedia community has provided some guidance based on its experience.

Partly responsible for Wales's move could be the polemics in the recent U.S. presidential race (with its much hightened Internet attention) that got some recent unfortunate exposure on Wikipedia. Entries for politicians in the so-called biographies of living persons (BLP) in Wikipedia have attracted more interest than ever, going through alternate (sometimes minute-to-minute) edits by political supporters and foes alike in the pursuit of "fact." The specific item that triggered Wales's concern was a news item in the Washington Post from January 21: "Kennedy, Byrd the Latest Victims of Wikipedia Errors." The two U.S. senators, who for personal reasons had to excuse themselves from parts of the post-inaugural events, were suddenly declared "dead" by one of the Wikipedia authors. The Post's article (and the extensive comments to it) was enough to prompt Wales to change the Wikipedia editing ground rules. The suggestion on his User Talk page: "This nonsense would have been 100% prevented by Flagged Revisions."

Wales is describing a process that the German Wikipedia edition had already implemented in April 2008. Flagged revisions (FRs) are extensions "where edits are made to certain articles, [and] those edits might not be immediately visible to readers, until they have been 'sighted' by someone trustworthy." In the German model, these "sighters" are regular and trusted editors. The idea was not to proof the accuracy of entries, but to prevent "blatant vandalism." As Wikipedia's own entry for "flagged revisions" currently says, "When a revision is reviewed by a trusted editor, that revision is tagged in the edit history, while in the meantime, article development can proceed with the most recent revision. If changes to the page seem constructive, any reviewer can tag the new version."

Wales now wants to introduce the FR concept generally in the English Wikipedia edition, based on a community survey that returned a 60% favorable rating for the approach: "This is a very wide margin, with 20% separation between the pros and cons," as Wales argues. He suggests a number of ways to implement the approach and, as in the German model, it will undergo "an extensive public test-beta."

As is customary in the Wikipedia community, the change Wales suggests will involve rigorous discussion in which the German prototype might get serious consideration. A report from the German Wikipedia community claims statistics that "the number of edits on [the German] WP has significantly gone up since sighted revisions were introduced." However, an opponent of the plan reminded the community that "~20% of German regulars quit after FR was implement[ed]," a statement incidentally crossed out in Wales's user talk.

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