The Big Question: Why has Wikipedia changed editorial policy, and will it improve the website?

Why are we asking this now?

Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia launched by American entrepreneur Jimmy Wales in 2001 with the idealistic intention of being an online repository of all human knowledge, announced this week that it would have to abandon one of its founding principles. To combat a growing amount of vandalism on the website, a two-month trial is being initiated whereby entries will be edited before they go up on the site. Previously, any user was allowed to make – almost – any change to any entry: this was hailed as part of the democratising power of the internet. But a sharp increase in false information – particularly in relation to people still alive – has forced a rethink.

What exactly will the new editors do?

The new policy is referred to as "flagged revisions". It allows editors to adjudicate (mainly through reference to other news sources) on changes made to the pages of a living person. The flagged revisions will be rolled out over the next fortnight, and Wikimedia, the non-profit organisation that runs the website, will monitor users responses over the trial period.

A team of "experienced volunteer editors" will oversee amendments to such pages, Wikimedia representatives said. "We are no longer at the point where it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks", said Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board. And Mike Peel, its UK spokesman, clarified the intention: "Anyone can continue to edit these articles, but the work of inexperienced editors with less than three days' experience will be subject to review by more experienced editors", he said. "This is our attempt to create a buffer to ensure that editors do not commit acts of vandalism."

How did the Wikipedia work before?

Wales has been feted as a brilliant business mind and social innovator for tapping into a popular impulse to add to public knowledge that few people knew existed, and even fewer publicly predicted. Wikipedia still works largely by allowing anybody to login as a user and click on an "Edit this page" tab at the top of an entry. From there it's simply a case of making changes and saving them, albeit according to a policy on "biographies of living persons". Any changes are then filed under the "Edit history" of the page, and the IP address – a numbered identity that shows where the change has been made from – is also kept on record. Pages that contain unverified information are highlighted.

In terms of sheer scale, the existence of Wikipedia has helped popularise the notion that the internet is awash with seemingly infinite information. There are limits to how reasonable this view is, of course, and certainly Wikipedia is far from infinite. But with more than three million English language articles alone, covering anything from different species of caterpillar to the cast of minor Australian television shows, and with some entries running to several thousand words, the volume of information is extraordinary. Since all of it has to be sourced, and therefore accounted for in some way, much of it is reliable. And, given it is one of the most popular websites in the world, with around 65 million users each month, its utility is difficult to underestimate. There are 10 million registered users worldwide on the English language pages, and, in all, there are around 13 million articles in 260 languages.

What errors forced the rethink?

It is ironic that the changes should be announced the same day that Ted Kennedy died, given the controversy over an article about the Senator from last year, when he was taken gravely ill at President Obama's inauguration, but survived, inaccurately reported his death. That was the most high-profile error but there have been countless others, only some of which come to public attention. Robbie Williams was briefly described as "eating hamsters for a living in and around Stoke". Vernon Kay was listed dead from a yachting accident, causing the television presenter to ring panicked relatives. David Beckham was said to keep goal for an 18th-century football team; Tony Blair, an update from February 2006 reported, kept posters of Hitler on his bedroom wall. Last September, singer Miley Cyrus was falsely described as having died in a car crash, much to the dismay of her fans, while the village of Denshaw in Greater Manchester was described as "the home to an obese population of sun-starved, sheep-hurling yokels with a brothel for a pub and a lingering tapeworm infection".

And when David Cameron admonished Gordon Brown in Prime Minister's Questions for not knowing the date of the painter Titian's death, he in fact got the date wrong himself, only for some ambitious Tory apparatchik to be exposed changing the Titian entry online in a bid to protect his leader, which in turn drew further attention to Cameron's faux pas.

Haven't they been doing that for a while?

"Flagged revisions" have already been in operation on the German version of the website for over a year. And representatives of Wikimedia have been playing down the significance of this change, claiming it is only a slight extension of a policy that is already in place, and therefore not a wholesale re-evaluation of its founding philosophy. To some extent this is true: the website did employ editors already, and demands that information be well sourced, and edit histories be comprehensible, shows a commitment to reliability from the outset. On the other hand, this week's announcement does suggest that the presumption on certain articles has changed. So numerous have the errors on the pages for living persons become that the presumption is now one of incorrect information that needs to be checked.

Ultimately, Wikipedia embodies a play-off between accuracy and accessibility. In the past, managers of the website have appeared to prize the latter ahead of the former. The latest changes don't reverse this inclination, but do suggest a willingness to compromise. This won't assuage the most trenchant critics of the website, but it may go some way to convincing them that its pioneering founders don't have a blatant disregard for history.

Won't this put people off from contributing?

Inevitably, imposing restrictions on the freedom with which contributors can edit pages will inhibit some from doing so. The new policy seems to suggest that while all editors are equal, some are more equal than others. Wikipedia executives can (and do) argue that given this new procedure applies only to a very small range of pages, there's no need to think that millions of other contributors – who take care on updating entries relating to butterfly migrations, or theories of time travel, for example – would be in any way disincentivised. Theories suggesting this may be the beginning of the end of Wikipedia therefore seem premature, and not least because the website has just received $2m (£1.24m) from a philanthropic fund set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, to help expand its network of volunteers.

Will new restrictions on editing pages make Wikipedia a better resource?

Yes...

* Errors relating to the entries on people that are still alive will not get published on the page.

* By sending a signal to users about accuracy, those tempted to vandalise other pages may be put off.

* The system has been a success in Germany and any new editors could be used to check other entries too.

No...

* The vast majority of pages are not subject to the restrictions imposed on pages about living people.

* Erecting barriers to users could put off people who might otherwise have edited entries, or added new ones.

* The new measures contradict Wikipedia's founding principles, where accessibility was paramount.

News
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
Voices
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
News
people
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

    £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

    £18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album