One of Wikipedia's founders is setting out to build a better online encyclopedia. Called Citizendium, the new site is now in beta and open to the public.
Dr. Larry Sanger, Citizendium's Editor-in-Chief, aims to improve upon the Web 2.0 encyclopedia model he helped develop by bringing more accountability and academic-quality articles to the concept. Citizendium, for example, requires contributors to use their real names.
"The modest success of our pilot project shows that there is hope that we can correct exactly the sort of abuses that people demonize Web 2.0 for. You don't have to choose between content and accountability," Sanger said in a statement.
Citizendium, he added, has demonstrated that a wiki-based encyclopedia can create open and credible content while still holding people to higher standards of content and behavior as a community.
Citizendium arrives in the wake of several Wikipedia scandals that have put a blemish on the concept.
In early March, a poster going by the screen name "Essjay" and claiming to be a professor of theology was really a 24-year-old college dropout named Ryan Jordan. The New Yorker brought the fraud to light in an editorial note admitting that its 2006 magazine profile of the community had misreported Essjay's academic credentials.
And in January, Rick Jelliffe, an O'Reilly Network blogger who offers his insights on XML issues, pondered an offer from Microsoft to make entries on Wikipedia on its behalf.
According to various news reports, Microsoft contracted Jelliffe to provide more balance on Wikipedia concerning the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft's competing Office Open XML format. Jelliffe publicized the offer on his blog and stirred accusations of anti-ethical behavior. Wikipedia found itself in the middle.
"Anonymity can certainly speed up the development cycle of online projects, but it also opens the door to the significant problems like vandalism and inaccuracy, as we've seen highlighted recently in the news," Sanger said, noting that Citizendium hasn't had any vandalism either before or after the short period in which developers tested out a self-registration system.
"We've discovered that it's a good thing to have human beings take part in screening other human beings because it gives you the ability to prevent and mediate many of these types of problems," Sanger added.
More than 180 expert editors and 800 authors have joined the project and have already worked on over 1,000 articles. Citizendium said that in the upcoming weeks it will implement a semi-automated registration system that will still rely on human interaction for final approval.
Josh Bernoff, a vice president at Forrester Research, said he sees a place for Citizendium on the social-media scene, and noted that corporations are extremely frustrated with Wikipedia's policies. "Companies have had real challenges getting their perspective on the facts addressed in Wikipedia," he explained. "You can file a complaint but there is no real protection against inaccuracies."
Although Bernoff said he is sure that no one would want to read on Citizendium only what companies want told, he said there is room for more balance. Bernoff, for one, is betting consumers will appreciate having a choice.
Of course, that doesn't mean Citizendium won't have challenges of its own in separating fact from fiction. "If you try to develop another way to define the truth it's also going to have flaws," he said. "There is no automatic truth algorithm in the world."
Wikipedia could not immediately be reached to comment on the competing site.