Knowledge Smackdown: Wikipedia vs. Citizendium

I have long been a fan of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Founded by fellow Alabama native Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia has harnessed a grassroots network of editors from around the world and created the fast-growing knowledge system in human history.

Of course, there are problems with Wikipedia, notably the errors and vandalism which sneak in from anonymous editors and the fact that debates over issues at Wikipedia often resemble old-west shootouts. In addition, there is also no way to verify the accuracy of any Wikipedia article (although this fault also rests with most online knowledge outlets). In short, while one shouldn't use Wikipedia as the totality of your research in any particular area, it remains a good place to start understanding any particular subject.

However, the fact that Wikipedia isn't an authoritative source of knowledge—with authoritative being read as having earned a stamp of approval from well-known experts—hasn't sat well with everyone. One of these people is Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales. Sanger was originally the editor in chief of Nupedia, an expert-created online encyclopedia owned by Wales. When Nupedia was unable to attract a large number of articles, Sanger proposed creating a wiki to spur the development of articles and the result was Wikipedia. The exact credit each of these men should receive has long been a source of contention but one thing is certain: Sanger left Wikipedia in 2002 with a bad taste in his mouth about a number of the ways Wikipedia was being run, most notably that Wikipedia's setup discouraged academic experts from taking part.

Now Sanger has proposed creating an alternative to Wikipedia, which he calls Citizendium. This encyclopedia will supposedly take many of the things that have worked well with Wikipedia—such as using a neutral point of view in articles and the fact that articles on Wikipedia are created under the GNU Free Documentation License, which allows people to copy and adapt Wikipedia's work without charge. Citizendium's aim is to create an "expert culture and community that encourages subject specialists ('editors') to contribute and 'citizens' (to be called "authors") to respect the expert contributions."(from Wikipedia's article on Citizendium)

To start Citizendium, Sanger will create a fork of Wikipedia by importing the million plus Wikipedia articles into Citizendium. Sanger's organization will then let their experts and authors improve these articles (as said before, the articles are available under the GNU free license).

I'm of two mind in this affair. Part of me really likes the fact that these two organizations will fight it out, so to speak, toward creating the ultimate database of human knowledge. Because both organizations will be using the GNU free license, their work will be available to any human being on the planet without charge. In addition, the competition might cause Wikipedia's community of editors to finally address the long-standing problems of anonymous editors and reliability of articles. It is also probable that articles will be traded back and forth between the two projects, with the best articles rising to the top of both encyclopedias like fine cream.

That said, I am troubled by some aspects of Sanger's Citizendium. Aside from its pretentious title (which participants are already saying must be changed), this feels in some ways like an attempt by old-guard academics to retake control of humanity's knowledge. Clay Shirky states this in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, where he notes that Sanger main beef all along with Wikipedia is that it doesn't give enough deference to academic experts.

I have no problem believing in the worth of experts. The problem, though, lies in deciding what makes one an expert. I wonder if Citizendium won't implode from the weight of trying to decide who is an expert. Is a person with a Ph.D. more of an expert than a person in the same field with more knowledge and life experience? Is a tenured professor in her twenties more of an expert than an adjunct professor who has been teaching for fifty years but never attained tenure for personal reasons? I know many people who lack the academic credentials in their respected fields but know far more than their academic peers with Ph.Ds and such.

There is also the fact that, as Clay Shirky says, experts don't exist outside of institutions. It is difficult to be an expert without a university or other official institution to stand behind you. By this reasoning, I imagine that Citizendium will gravitate toward deeming people associated with universities and other institutions of higher education as experts.

I hope they don’t take such a simplistic approach at defining the worth of a contributor’s knowledge. Wikipedia's strength is that it has been created outside of institutions in an online world where the weight of knowledge and reliability of sources decides what’s correct, not the pedigree behind one's name. In short, Wikipedia is in many ways a marketplace of ideas and knowledge, were market forces work to create the available information. The process is rarely pretty and doesn't get everything right. But as Wikipedia's explosive growth and accuracy attest (notice that almost all the links here are to Wikipedia articles), this marketplace of ideas can be a powerful force. If Citizendium is restricted to institutional experts, it will lose it connection to the most powerful force available for the compilation of knowledge.

Still, I am optimistic about all of this. Competition is a powerful force and perhaps Citizendium will improve on Wikipedia. Or, perhaps, Citizendium will force Wikipedia to improve its own processes. Or vice verse.

But no matter what happens, I am certain of one thing: The winner will be all of humanity.