The Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2009
Wikipedia faces a revolt among thousands of its contributors over proposals to change the way the online encyclopedia is run.
Until now, Wikipedia has allowed anybody to make instant changes to almost all of its 2.7m entries, with only a handful of entries protected from being altered.
But under proposals put forward by the website's co-founder Jimmy Wales, many future changes to the site would need to be approved by a group of editors before going live.
Wales argues the scheme will bring greater accuracy, particularly in articles referring to living people. But the possibility has caused a furore among Wikipedia users, since many see it as a fundamental change to the egalitarian nature of the site.
A user poll on the website suggests 60% are in favour of trials, which could take place within the next few weeks. But some think the split could ultimately threaten the future of the site.
"The big issue is that while we have majority support, we don't have consensus, and that's the way we have always made our decisions," said Jake Wartenberg. "A lot of editors are becoming disenchanted with the project; we are losing them all the time."
Such changes have been considered before, but were brought into focus last week when Wikipedia falsely announced that two prominent US politicians had died.
On the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, the site reported the deaths of West Virginia's Robert Byrd - the longest-serving senator in American history - and Ted Kennedy, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and collapsed during the inaugural lunch.
Both reports were false, and Wikipedia quickly changed the site back to reflect the truth, but the situation drove Wales to push strongly for change.
"This nonsense would have been 100% prevented by flagged revisions," he wrote on the site. "This was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate [but] we have a tool available now that is consistent with higher quality."
The technical system that allows Wikipedia to run in this way was released last summer and has already been put into place on the German version of the website. But German editors have decided that changes will not be approved for around three weeks - a timescale which Wales suggests would be "unacceptable" for the English-language site.
It would not be the first major change in the way the site, ranked as the world's seventh largest by traffic analysis tool Alexa, operates. In 2005, Wikipedia said it was going to prevent anonymous users from creating entries as a way of stopping cyber-bullying and vandalism.
That change was also spurred by a political controversy, in which prominent journalist and Democratic party aide John Siegenthaler discovered that an anonymous user had written a biography of him which alleged that he was involved in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy in the 1960s.
Wikipedia has also locked down a number of controversial articles in order to prevent long-running "edit wars".
If the site grants new powers to editors, it would bring Wikipedia even closer to traditional encyclopedia websites such as Britannica, which last week announced that it would be launching a new online version that would allow readers to submit their own updates to entries. That change came after a bitter war of words, following a 2005 study by science journal Nature that found Wikipedia and Britannica were often comparable for accuracy - and in some cases, Wikipedia won.