Free online encyclopedia Wikipedia needs to improve the quality of its content in the coming year, Jimmy Wales, the founder of the project, said Friday.
"We're going to have a really strong quality initiative," Wales told attendees in his opening keynote at Wikimania, a three-day conference for users of projects run by the Wikimedia Foundation, taking place in Massachusetts. Wales is the founder and chair of the board of trustees of Wikimedia, a nonprofit corporation that operates Wikipedia along with several other wiki initiatives. The term "wiki" describes Web sites that can be accessed and changed using a browser-based user interface.
With the English-language version of Wikipedia containing close to 1.3 million articles, the time has come to adopt a more considered approach to its content. "We will continue to turn attention away from growth and towards quality," Wales said.
Wikipedia and Wales have battled criticism over the accuracy of information contained in the encyclopedia, which was originally set up to allow anyone to add and edit any content on the Web site.
The negative publicity reached fever pitch last year when John Seigenthaler, a U.S. journalist and former political aide, wrote an article about what he found in a Wikipedia biographical listing about himself.
The defamatory content, which had sat mostly unaltered for four months on the Wikipedia site, linked Seigenthaler to the assassinations of both U.S. President John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, who Seigenthaler had worked for as an assistant.
"That was really bad, a terrible error, and we fixed it really quickly," Wales said, noting that after he appeared on CNN with Seigenthaler to discuss the incident in December, traffic to Wikipedia nearly tripled.
Since that time, controls have been put in place on Wikipedia. Systems administrators have the ability to block access to the site by certain users who've been repeatedly vandalizing entries.
Wales acknowledged that Wikipedia's policies on biographies of living people need refinement. Wikipedia's approach to handling complaints by people objecting to content about themselves also has to improve, he said.
Soon after the Seigenthaler controversy, Wikipedia got positive feedback from a study in Nature magazine that found that a group of its scientific articles had an average of three errors compared to four found in similar pieces from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a traditional encyclopedia. "It contradicted people who said Wikipedia was rubbish," Wales said. "We got pretty lucky, we're stronger in science" than in other areas such as the humanities, he added. Wales is keen to reach out to more good quality arts editors to improve Wikipedia's humanities coverage.
"We aren't as good as Britannica yet," he said. "Our work is getting better and better."
Looking ahead, Wikimedia plans to create a more formal advisory board in part to help with Wikipedia's quality control issues, Wales said.
"We'll pull together a bunch of interesting people who have contacts, expertise, perspective, prestige and strategic views to help us," he added.
Wikimedia already has a general counsel and an interim chief executive officer (CEO) in the person of lawyer Brad Patrick who joined the foundation two months ago. Patrick is going to spearhead the search for a permanent CEO, Wales said.