Citizendium Blog

April 1, 2008

This founder’s vision has not yet become reality

Filed under: Best of this blog, Experts, Other projects, Press & blogs, Recruitment — Larry Sanger @ 12:44 pm

In an Inside Higher Ed column, “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” Mark A. Wilson claims of Wikipedia, “The vision of its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, has become reality…”  Wilson calls on college professors to get involved in Wikipedia, using their own real names.  One has to wonder if this is an April Fool’s gag, but it’s a pretty sober-sounding piece.

Here’s is my response, which I added to the IHE comments:

I’m Larry Sanger, and this is false. Please do not use my name to encourage professors to get involved in Wikipedia. My vision has always been for a maximally reliable information resource—not one that is controlled by faceless, often hostile, often irresponsible people, many of them teenagers and college students.

Over the years there have been repeated calls to professors to get involved and improve Wikipedia. Few have heeded the call, and those who have have come back pretty consistently saying, “This place is nuts.” Indeed, long ago—in 2002—I seriously considered starting up a Wikipedia “Sifter” project (you can still read about this in archives) in which experts would approve Wikipedia articles. At the time I was told by some of the more active Wikipedians, essentially: “Don’t expect those alleged experts to get any special treatment from us. They’re no better than the rest of us, and they shouldn’t get all uppity and act like they are!” It then became clear to me that Wikipedia simply had no place for experts. I could not in good conscience recommend that any serious knowledge professional participate in Wikipedia. I still cannot.

Inside Higher Ed and this columnist would do better to acquaint themselves with a project that actually gives college professors, and other experts, a modest but real stake in guidance of content decisions and management of content policy: the Citizendium. I can’t fault the author for not mentioning us, as we are new and, with only 5,800 articles, still unproven. But a positive passing mention would help to create a better alternative to Wikipedia. Please spread the word.

Sign up here. It’s a good time to sign up; tomorrow is our monthly Write-a-Thon, which is always very lively!

Let me temper the above comments with a few additional remarks:

  • I have long maintained, and I still do, that Wikipedia is very useful, and that most of the people working on Wikipedia are excellent hands.  I do not mean to dismiss Wikipedia, or the work of most Wikipedians, wholesale.  I simply want to quash any notion that I can be associated with a call to experts to descend on Wikipedia, which I think is a bad idea.
  • Perhaps I should also clarify that the significant advantage of the Citizendium is not merely that it makes a place for experts.  That is only one of our differences (and advantages).  But it is the difference that is relevant to any suggestion that experts get involved in Wikipedia.
  • I understand that there are certain topics, especially more technical and mathematical topics, where Wikipedians behave themselves rather better and where expert knowledge is accorded an appropriate (not fawning, of course) respect.  I don’t mean to deny this, and well done to all involved for their success with articles on such topics.


  1. Much of what you are saying here seems like an advertisement for something like Veropedia. You start out with information that is produced by the masses, and then you give experts a shot to proof-read it, revise it, and then stabilize it so it is maximally reliable. A benefit to Veropedia over Citizendium, in this case, is that you start with millions of potential articles, not just 6000 of them. You let the editors do their thing, creating good articles, and when they have gotten good enough you pass them on to the experts for review and stabilization.

    I do agree that experts do have their place in the content creation process, but I’m not sure that the place in question is down in the trenches. Wikipedia is the furnace that produces raw content, what we need is a forge where that raw content can be molded and polished.

    Comment by Andrew Whitworth — April 1, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  2. Not at all. With all due respect to the guys behind Veropedia, Veropedia is just the Sifter project watered down and reheated. Veropedia, for-profit and anonymous, is going nowhere; Veropedia has only had a few dozen edits this month.

    You might ask yourself why, therefore, in spite (or because?) of the fact that we are starting over, we have had over 500 edits in the last six hours…

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 1, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

  3. 1) we should try to get an article in that journal / magazine / website
    2) we should ask for a correction to be written. Most magazinges have a section where they correct last editions mistakes.

    Comment by t — April 1, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  4. i wish we could just announce citizendium some UN-intrusive way to every professor in the US, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, and all the other English Speaking countries.

    Spamming every inbox probably isn’t the answer but we should restir the ideas on how to advertise to professors more.

    What about retired professors? How can we target them?

    Comment by t — April 1, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  5. “…not one that is controlled by faceless, often hostile, often irresponsible people, many of them teenagers and college students.” - Yeah, because that’s such a great way to recruit future contributors to Citizendium; attack the core foundation of possible and likely wiki-contributors.

    Comment by Pat — April 1, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  6. Pat, read what you quoted again. I’m obviously not attacking teenagers and college students involved on Wikipedia. I am attacking “faceless, often hostile, often irresponsible people” on Wikipedia. That is in the quotation itself. And indeed we don’t want those people involved with CZ. We’re happy they’re enthusiastic about Wikipedia. I mention that many of them are teenagers and college students, to underscore the point that the leadership of Wikipedia is heavy on people with immature judgment — which might sound like an insult, but it is simply a hard truth.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 1, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  7. I’m a college professor, and have been coordinating a project on Wikipedia this semester. Indeed, this project is still ongoing. There have of course been snafus and difficulties at times, but overall my experience has been remarkably positive, and I would recommend it to others.

    You can find more information at “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem”, and an essay I wrote about the process is “Madness”.

    Comment by Jon — April 1, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  8. Why not try it with next semester, and compare?

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 1, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  9. To be honest, looking at Ezendium, I think that the standards are higher on Wikipedia. (See my essay for further thoughts about Wikipedia standards.) I suspect that students are pushed more by writing for Wikipedia, and with a more obvious pay-off. Again, see what I’ve said about the experience.

    Comment by Jon — April 1, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

  10. Jon, it’s completely silly to say that the standards are higher on Wikipedia. Of course there are more people on Wikipedia; your students have to deal with more nutcases as well as a larger quantity of smart, sensible people. This just means there’s more activity on Wikipedia, though, not higher standards. The actual expectations that the CZ has for its articles are much higher than Wikipedia has for its articles; see this page and this for what I mean. As far as Eduzendium standards go, well, that depends on how you make use of the program, which is very much up to you. Eduzendium is just a program with CZ and shares CZ’s standards for its articles.

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 2, 2008 @ 2:56 am

  11. Dr. Sanger you write:

    “I understand that there are certain topics, especially more technical and mathematical topics, where Wikipedians behave themselves rather better and where expert knowledge is accorded an appropriate (not fawning, of course) respect.”

    I’m a retired associate professor of theoretical chemistry and spurred on by a retired professor of psychology (who is a contributor to the Dutch WP) I started to contribute fairly technical physics/mathematics stuff — at the senior, first-year grad level — to the English WP. I kept my patience at WP for quite some time(for those who want to check, my WP name is P.wormer), but after nine months explaining high-school material over and over again to an infinite supply of nutcases, I gave up on WP. So, I disagree with your (positive) statement.

    Dr. Paul Wormer

    Comment by Paul Wormer — April 2, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  12. Larry, I don’t at all think it’s silly to say that standards are higher on Wikipedia. I had a look through your “Approved articles,” for instance, and note that none that I saw would pass muster at Wikipedia’s Featured Article Review. And Citizendium’s “Article Mechanics” has not received anything like the sustained thought that gives us Wikipedia’s “Manual of Style.”

    At Wikipedia I’ve been astonished (and very impressed) at the close attention that an article can receive, and the way in which this forces my students to re-examine their work line by line, word by word. See the process here, for instance.

    Now, again, as I wrote in my little essay, the paradox of Wikipedia is that is has such lofty standards, and yet it fails so much to meet them: less then half of one per cent of its articles are what it itself considers “good articles” or “featured articles.”

    But still, this doesn’t mean that those standards are there, and that they are (as far as I can see) higher than Ezendium.

    Meanwhile, regarding the rather different topic of the type of people who are on Wikipedia (and I’m not sure why you repeatedly confuse these two topics): I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of what you term “nutcases” on Wikipedia, and I’ve run into them in my time. Indeed, as I suggest in my essay, this was my major fear in going into this project: that students would be put off by endless edit wars. But really, this has not been a problem in the slightest.

    Comment by Jon — April 2, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  13. Sorry, obviously I meant “this doesn’t mean that those standards are not there”

    Comment by Jon — April 2, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  14. why not try to encourage people to write. ebay’s success is do to its rating system of all of its writers. if we could do that to wikipedia or to citizendium (citizendium - people who have contributed multiple articles that have been approved would move to like an editor status…) it could be helpful. i’ve also heard of professors (i’m a student) that assigns his students to write an article for wikipedia as an assignment. we could do that here such as a buddhism teacher having his students writing an article on a topic in buddhism and then the professor editing it himself

    Comment by Micah — April 2, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  15. Larry, seeing what Jon Murray just wrote, I will no longer allow my daughter to consider attending the University of British Columbia, so long as Murray is paid to teach there. Furthermore, I would guess that your Eduzendium sub-project (which is very impressive, indeed) is probably much better off without Murray’s meddling. Wikipedia’s standards are higher than Citizendiums? I had to double-check my calendar, because a statement like that could only be made with a straight face on April 1st.

    Comment by Gregory Kohs — April 2, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  16. Larry, I have to disagree when you say that Jon’s comment about Wikipedia’s higher standards is silly. He’s talking about, in particular, the standards of “Good Article” and “Featured Article”. The Featured Article standard (as in, the level of quality it takes today for an article to become a new Featured Article) seems to be higher, on average, than the standards for Approved articles on Citizendium.

    This is, of course, my personal assessment and there is room for disagreement. But the highest standards on each project (Approval and Featured Article) are significantly a function of the number of smart, sensible people who vet the candidates. So in practice, educational projects like Jon’s will get both more useful criticism and more assistance reaching the codified standards on Wikipedia than on Citizendium.

    Comment by Sage (User:Ragesoss) — April 3, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

  17. Jon, Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for you to set your own standard for your class? I assume you don’t give grades based on whether they make FA or GA status?

    Comment by Chris D — April 4, 2008 @ 1:44 am

  18. Sorry the comments weren’t posted until now. I’ve been offline all this time in the wilds of New York City. We really need to get some more active blogger-posters on this blog…

    Comment by Larry Sanger — April 4, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  19. For those interested in my thoughts on this wikipedia project, again I can only recommend you read what I wrote and linked to.

    But for those who do not want to clink that link, here is a snippet of what I say about Wikipedia’s standards:

    “[I]ts standards are, in fact, impressively high. Indeed, it is a central paradox of wikipedia that its standards are impeccable, even as its actual performance so often lags far behind these standards. To give some indication: fewer than 0.1% of wikipedia’s articles are featured articles.”

    But then I also said this in a comment above.

    Still, whatever the educational destiny of Mr Kohs’s daughter, I recommend that her father think first and expostulate later.

    As for Chris D’s comment. In fact, in this class, I have allowed students grades to be determined in part by whether or not their articles make FA or GA status. I don’t find anything necessarily problematic with that. Indeed, I see significant advantages in allowing students to see that grading schemes are not a professor’s personal whim, but have some correlation with what goes on in the public sphere.

    In a follow-up essay, I hope to have more to say about this. In brief, however, I’ve found that in lots of ways Wikipedia’s standards have been much stricter than mine–and undoubtedly much higher than those set in almost any college course that I could conceive. Above all, for the sheer number of revisions that it forces upon them. There are other ways, however, in which Wikipedia’s standards are very different from those customary in academia. (Again I talk about that in my essay, too.) Plus there have been some pragmatic issues in terms of the ways in which groupwork is done, but I’m not sure those are particularly related to Wikipedia.

    Anyhow, I will certainly be reflecting further on the process when the course is finally over, and the questions of grading and groupwork are among the issues I may well reconsider.

    But once more, this is not for lack of standards on Wikipedia!

    And I am far from saying that Wikipedia’s articles generally (or even in the vast majority of cases) meet those standards. But again, for fuller discussion of this, you can just click and read.

    NB all this seems rather separate from the question of “expertise” and its valorization (or otherwise) on Wikipedia. Though the two topics do mutually impinge in certain interesting ways. But we can discuss that anon…

    Comment by Jon — April 4, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  20. I think there is room to disagree on Wikipedia’s nominal standards vs Citizendium’s nominal standards. Whose standards are better, and who does better at practically achieving them. But WP and CZ are at such different points in their lifecycles (and CZ is still changing quickly) that it’s difficult to say very much.

    Comment by Mike Johnson — April 5, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  21. Jon, did you consider the fact that a student in your project can register at WP with any nickname he or she wants and subsequently can give his/her own article GA status? Do you know the qualifications of the WP people that deal out FA status? Do you know whether they know anything about translated Latin American literature? Or do you find these questions irrelevant?

    Comment by Paul Wormer — April 6, 2008 @ 7:44 am

  22. Paul, in answer to your questions, which I don’t find irrelevant at all:

    1) I’m aware that there are ways of gaming the system and cheating in one manner or another. I mention this is my essay. Running a sockpuppet would be one of them. I actually think it would be fairly hard to do this successfully: certainly no easier than the multitude of ways of cheating that are (and always have been) available to students in other forms of assessment.

    2) No, I don’t know the qualifications of the people that “deal out” FA status. And I suspect that they know little to nothing about Latin American literature (translated or otherwise). But given the genre of the encyclopedia article, and the fact that the Featured Article assessment system relies on the fact that articles are copiously sourced, on the whole I don’t see that as a problem. The issue is not ”expertise”, but whether or not editors have followed the stipulated (and as I say, quite demanding) ”research protocols”.

    Obviously, in this particular case (and no doubt in others similar), it helps that I am there as a (credentialled) source of expertise in the subject. And for what it’s worth, in my experience that expertise has very much been respected by everyone involved. For instance, a question arose as to whether or not there was insufficient emphasis on the political career of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, as compared to his literary and journalistic activities, and I was able to advise.

    But in fact, expertise has been hardly at issue. I’ll repeat that I think that’s a bit of a canard, at least in my experience. At the very least, it’s a rather separate matter.

    And I should say (again) that I am not celebrating Wikipedia or endorsing it in all cases. Even after this experience, I will continue to tell students that they should not cite it in term papers etc. But a) Wikipedia itself recommends against such citation; and b) I hope that the students in this class will now know, much better than previously, the perils as well as the potential of using a site such as this.

    My students might even have learned another paradox of wikipedia: that if an article is good, then they will not ”have” to cite it, because it will provide references to the sources that they should be citing; and if it does not have those references, then it is not good enough to cite in the first place.

    Again, I think all this should be clear enough from the essay I wrote. I hope (in fact, I am certain) that the students are coming out of the process with a much better knowledge of how wikipedia works, and also how it doesn’t. As far as I can see, that’s good for everyone concerned.

    Comment by Jon — April 7, 2008 @ 1:26 am

  23. Jon, the reason I wondered about the grade was not the gaming of the system, although that could happen too, but the fact that some FA reviewers are very anal while others are lax. Worse i have seen articles placed up for deletion after entering FA review. Consequently, trying to get FA or GA might be very tough for some students yet trivial for others. May be you are lucky and have not come across such disparities in review but it seems quite likely it would happen in any given class.

    Comment by Chris D — April 7, 2008 @ 9:27 am

  24. Chris: This could indeed be a problem, and in one case almost became one. In one case we did have a lax review; but there has been sufficient oversight that more experienced editors came in and re-did the review.

    Of course in the normal course of things, it would be more likely that such a problem would be caught only much later, as an article is put up for reassessment; we didn’t have the time to wait for the normal course of things. Wikipedia’s oversight mechanisms can work slowly, and there’s a particular backlog when it comes to Good Articles.

    So, yes, this could be a problem. But I don’t think it is unmanageable.

    Comment by Jon — April 7, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

  25. Note that an anal review can be as bad as a lax review too, with respect to the student getting a fair grade. Some people nitpick to perfectly good articles. I guess what i am suggesting is the grade should probably not be dependent on getting to a GA status although I do agree that to go through the process would be a benefit. I think if I set this up myself having TA’s and myself doing the “graded” external review would be more fair for the class. Then additional input is a bonus and never a detriment. Also, under such circumstances there is no temptation to game the system.

    Comment by Chris D — April 7, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  26. Chris, I agree that an overly demanding review could also be a problem. Oversight is always going to be necessary: the point is not simply to abrogate responsibility for standards or grading to wikipedia; the point, however, is that there is some kind of external goal.

    But obviously, others are welcome to do things differently. I’m not trying to be prescriptive here!

    Comment by Jon — April 9, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  27. As a student of Jon’s class, and given the hours I have spent working on this project over the last four months, I implore you to take a look at El Senor Presidente, an article that finally reached FA status. Also, the standards are far from lax, if anything they are much more extreme than any professor I have encountered. They dissect every single sentence written and ask clarfiication questions, ask you to re-write something so that the prose is more engaging. There is no question in my mind that this is an extemely challenging assignment and I have put a lot more time into it than I would a term paper, which is given a grade based on my professor’s mood that day or how good the essay he/she read before mine was. So, I would say that if you really are critical of this assignment, give it a shot yourself. Try to bring any article to GA or FA status and I think you will find the reveiwers are everything but lax and it is fair that if one achieves these statuses, one should be guaranteed a higher grade. I don’t know if this adds to the discussion or not but I thought I would add the opinion of one of his students from the class.

    Comment by Monica F — April 12, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  28. Jon has been by far one of the most interesting and creative professors that I’ve had. Keep in mind that our course grade is not based solely on this Wikipedia assignment; and there are definitely other assignments in the class. I agree with all of Monica’s comments above. Getting an article to FA (or even GA) status takes a lot of work and persistance, something our page The General in His Labyrinth is still trying to achieve. The amount of work I have put into this page far surpasses what I would usually put in for a “one-night paper”. I now know not to rely entirely on Wikipedia for research, BUT instead to go to the references at the bottom for a good starting point for research.

    If anything, Jon’s class is a good reason to attend UBC.

    Comment by Eva — April 12, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  29. I hope other, more important things influence your college decision than whether or not Wikipedia is a part of one of its college courses. To me, Wikipedia is the ultimate test of whether John Stuart Mill was right when he wrote On Liberty way back when. If everybody really has a voice, will the truth come out? I think that when Wikipedia is at its best, it is the best tertiary source out there. Period. When it’s at its worst, it has the potential to become the best source out there.

    Comment by Dave — April 12, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

  30. One might question why students are encouraged to put so much work into a project that has taken tax-deductible donations and spent them on things like $1200 dinners for four, a bottle of wine that costs more than an iPod, and (worst of all) a massage parlor visit in Moscow. When an employee of that project actually put his foot down and said “no” to these ridiculous and shameful expenses, he was later described to the press as a “disgruntled former employee”, and the perpetrator of these offenses was described as having “never done anything wrong”.

    I don’t care how rigorous the “Featured Article” standards are on Wikipedia. The leadership of the project is corrupt, and to participate willingly while that corruption festers is like praising how efficiently the autobahns ran in 1938. A fish rots from the head down. Some of us recognize that. Others of you don’t.

    How does the academic community react to the recent proposal by the Wikimedia Foundation’s lawyer to “swap” the GFDL distribution license that has governed the millions of editors and billions of edits, where it has no legal right to do so? Does the academic community even understand the ramifications of a licensing “bait and switch”?

    Comment by Gregory Kohs — April 12, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  31. I think that Jon’s project is absolutely fabulous. Students can clearly relate their research work to a target readership, avoiding the sometimes pathological inbreeding generated in academia, where an obscure terminology and even obscurer concepts bar normal human beings from engaging with the topics discussed. I consider writing for wikipedia a very healthy thing to do. So thumbs up for that!
    The problems of quality are another matter. As someone engaged in Latin American studies for some time, I suspect that no edit wars have ensued as yet, because not many people know much about the topic, many don´t really care, and there is very little at stake.
    Having said that, though, what I could verify on a quick glance (of some articles, like those on García Márquez, of whom I know a bit more about than, say, Vargas Llosa) that they are indeed excellent and I would recommend them to students any time as an ideal point of departure for their own research. No one single article, from wikipedia or other source, can feed you all the information; and even the articles of acclaimed academics can be based on poor research (see Harlod Bloom on García Marquez, for example). So you always have to check your facts, whether they have been published on WP or by Harvard University Press.
    Awsome, Jon!

    Comment by Erna — April 13, 2008 @ 1:35 am

  32. I am humbled that my students, totally unbidden, should have come here to defend the project from their point of view. Thanks, guys! And thanks also to Erna for your observations and support.

    Comment by Jon — April 13, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  33. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, may all your wishes come true!

    Comment by Saraboragus — December 13, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

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