Premature obituaries may force new Wikipedia rules

Online encyclopedia may vet entries after falsely reporting senators' deaths

Entries on the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia may have to be pre-approved after it wrongly claimed that Senator Edward Kennedy had died.

The user-generated site, in which members of the public are encouraged to provide the entries, is to review the rules governing contributions. It could lead to entries being centrally approved before being published, which would constitute a radical overhaul of the site's operations.

Calls for a review followed the embarrassing revelation that pages on Senator Robert Byrd and Senator Edward Kennedy, two prominent American politicians, falsely gave the impression that each had died.

Senator Kennedy, who is severely ill with a malignant brain tumour, went into convulsions during an inaugural lunch for President Barack Obama in Washington on 20 January. But his entry on the site wrongly stated that he had died: "Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama presidential inauguration on 20 January 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair, and died shortly after." News reports said later that, according to his doctors, he was suffering from fatigue.

A similar error was made on the entry for Senator Byrd.

Both mistakes were corrected within minutes, but its founder, Jimmy Wales, now wants a new or unknown user's changes to be approved by an editor; some editors say that process would create "backlogs that we will be unable to manage".

Mr Wales's proposal, of flagged revisions, has been in place on the German Wikipedia site for almost a year, but critics complain that the labour-intensive process undermines the site's reputation for speed.

"This nonsense would have been 100 per cent prevented by flagged revisions," Mr Wales wrote on a user talk page. "It could also have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but ... this was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out)." He said a poll showed that 60 per cent of users supported a trial of that scheme.

But there was soon a storm of responses from other editors. "Kowtowing to bad press seems wrong-headed to me," one said. "Our future depends on those ignorant of Wikipedia's potential stumbling on an article, fixing it, and getting hooked. Flagged Revs throw a wrench into that process." Mr Wales asked those opposed to the changes to make "an alternative proposal within seven days, to be voted upon 14 days after that".