Wikipedia to unlock frequently vandalized pages

Online encyclopedia announces changes to controversial control practices

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In an effort encourage greater participation, Wikipedia, the self-described "online encyclopedia that anyone can edit," is turning to tighter editorial control as a substitute for simply "locking" those entries that frequently attract mischief makers and ideologues.

That tighter control will encourage participation may seem counter-intuitive, but in the context of Wikipedia's long-running troubles with pranksters and political operatives it makes a lot of sense. The new process is aimed at both first-time and anonymous contributors; in others words those who are most likely to cause trouble.

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A blog post from Wikipedia's Moka Pantages explains:

Over the next few days, English language Wikipedia users may notice a small change on some articles: a little magnifying glass where a lock once was. The icon, on the upper right corner of the article, represents an important step that Wikipedia volunteers have taken to open up articles that were previously protected from editing. Starting Tuesday at 11pm UTC, the English Wikipedia community will begin a two-month trial of a new tool called "Pending Changes" (formerly known as Flagged Protection).

Articles that are frequently subjected to malicious edits have long been locked, sometimes for years, and protected from editing by new and anonymous users. Over the last year, the Wikimedia Foundation and volunteers from the community have been working to develop Pending Changes, a softer alternative to these editing restrictions. At present, only about 0.1 percent of the 3.3 million articles on the English Wikipedia are under edit protection. This tool should help reduce disruptive edits or errors to articles while maintaining open, collaborative editing from anyone who wants to contribute.

Changes submitted by new or anonymous users will be screened by experienced Wikipedia editors before being published, a process that is sure to create controversies of its own, but one far preferable to the free-for-all that had rendered some Wikipedia pages untrustworthy.   

The trial of the new system will cover a maximum of 2,000 pages, including such frequently vandalized ones as that about former President George W. Bush.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tells BBC News: "These (pages) have had to be semi-protected for years just because they are too tempting for naughty people to try something funny. But semi-protection has prevented thoughtful and sincere newcomers from making good changes."

Even as the site has grown ever larger and more useful, Wikipedia has experienced a serious decline in participation by content creators and editors. Some of that decline has been attributed to the difficulty experienced by newcomers. According to a Wall Street Journal article:

In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzed Wikipedia's data on the editing histories of its more than three million active contributors in 10 languages.

... the declines in participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia's ability to continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy. Errors and deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its reliability.

If it works, "Pending Changes" has a chance to address both issues. There's more detail about the new system at this Q&A.

Wikipedia recently announced that it has received a $1.2 million grant to improve the accuracy of of articles about public policy, many of which are targets of pranksters and less-than-objective editing.

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