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The Citizendium Lie



I like the idea behind Citizendium. It’s good. In fact, it might actually be the best model we’ve found yet. But it’s still a flawed idea—and it’s been flawed since before wikis were ever conceived.

With Citizendium going live this week, there’s been some discussion about its model. If you’ve missed it, the short version is that Citizendium requires contributors to prove their identities and provide a biography or curriculum vitae. In addition to contributors, more qualified editors will oversee the creation and content of articles relating to their area of expertise and postgraduate study.

What’s the problem? Well, aside from the fact that we’ve already seen how easy it is to fool a wiki into thinking you’re someone you’re not, there’s the simple fact that people make mistakes—sometimes glaringly obvious ones.

On Wikipedia for example (yes, I occasionally edit Wikipedia), I’ve seen people who could certainly become editors on Citizendium (Wikipedia admin, thousands of edits, advanced degrees, Oxford professor) make errors that glancing at a dictionary (even Answers.com) would correct.

An honest mistake? I’m sure. One that he seems to think he’ll defend to the death? Possibly.

Having an ultimate authority in a topic area may not actually decrease inaccuracies. In a study of 42 science articles in 2005, Wikipedia articles were found to contain, on average, four errors.

What did the Encyclopaedia Britannica have to say on the findings?

“We have nothing against Wikipedia,” says Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications at the company’s headquarters in Chicago. “But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written. There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor.”

An editor like Britannica’s? Britannica’s science articles contained, on average, about three errors.

Wikipedia, Britannica and Citizendium all strive to overcome the natural tendencies of humans in their works: bias and error. However, introducing more biased, flawed humans into the editing process doesn’t necessarily decrease the likelihood of errors. And by giving some people more power than others only means that the mistakes of the powerful will likely be overlooked.

(On an unrelated note, no encyclopedia, no matter how well vetted, should comprise the entirety of real research.)

Will Citizendium be better? Certainly. Will it be more popular than Wikipedia? Not for a while, if ever.

But will it actually be good? That remains to be seen.

  • http://www.fusability.com Greg Scowen

    You are right of course Jordan, it will be interesting to watch and see what happens with this one.

    I can imagine half of my University Professors madly typing away all of their interesting wee theories.

  • Jordan McCollum

    No kidding. If the Linguistics authority was from my alma mater, Noam Chomsky might get a passing mention. If s/he were from MIT, languages might get a passing mention ;) .