CZ:Managing Editor/2012/001 - Interview Correio Braziliense

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We received a request for an interview from Correio Braziliense, with the following set of questions. No word limit was stated. This is the final draft that was submitted to them. A few weeks later, this article was published in the Correio, which made basically no use of the materials provided here.

How did the idea of creating Citizendium come up?

When was it created?

Citizendium was founded in 2006 by Larry Sanger, who had earlier worked on an online encyclopedia project called Nupedia before co-founding Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales in 2001. After an initial private testing phase, the project was publicly launched in March 2007.

How does it work?

Sanger originally envisaged Citizendium as a project to improve Wikipedia articles by having all contributors edit pages under their real, verified identities, with specialists to provide "gentle expert guidance". However, in 2007 the early contributors agreed with Sanger to delete most of the Wikipedia pages and start a brand-new knowledge project. Since then, the site has grown to over 16,000 mostly original articles, of which a little under 1% have been "approved" by experts and locked from further editing, though improvements are possible on a secondary "draft" page, whereupon the improved version may be approved to replace the previous approved and locked version.

In order to free articles from supplementary material, pages are organized in "clusters" of subpages that complement the main article with separate "subpage" tabs, such as for weblinks, videos, annotated further reading suggestions (bibliography subpage), that relate to the topic.

Citizendium is not an experts-only project; anyone who is willing to contribute under their real, verified name and maintain a minimal biography is allowed to edit articles. This policy is designed to create a more collegial atmosphere. Although joining Citizendium is therefore not an instantaneous process, through this policy, the site benefits from very little disruptive editing ("vandalism"), which is more common on open wiki projects such as Wikipedia.

All contributors are known as "Authors", and those recognised as experts due to their qualifications and/or experiences are called "Editors"—by contrast, on Wikipedia, an "editor" is any user who can modify pages. Behaviour on the site is moderated by administrators who are called "Constables".

Since October 2010, Citizendium has had a Charter and two elected bodies: the Editorial Council, to decide matters of content, and the Management Council, which deals with administrative, technical, and legal issues. There is also a directly elected Managing Editor, who is able to make interim decisions and represent the project, and an elected Ombudsman to mediate in disputes.

As usual on wikis, each article hosts a Discussion, or Talk, page that encourages/enables contributors to discuss issues and topics related to the article's development.

Citizendium is currently being developed only in English, and has a requirement that contributors be able to write acceptably in that language. A long-term goal is to open versions in other languages.

What is the importance of having such a vast offer of information?

Note: the question can be understood in several ways. We have replied to three of them: (1) Why collect information?, (2) Why another project that collects information?. (3) Why a vast offer of information?

Ad 1: Knowledge and information have always been collected—in manuscripts, libraries, and encyclopedias. In this Internet age, they are also collected online.

There is already a broad choice of online encyclopedias. Some are specialized like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which appears to be successful and benefits from a narrow focus, a characteristic it shares with most technical journals. Others are general encyclopedias like Britannica and Wikipedia. The success of open-access online-encyclopedias in general, and of Wikipedia in particular, clearly show the importance of online collections of information and knowledge.

Ad 2: If the question asks why it is important to offer yet another general online encyclopedia then the answer is that—as everywhere else—competition is vital for encyclopedias, too. Monopolies or quasi-monopolies such as that of Wikipedia are dangerous. Another answer is that the form of the on-line encyclopedia is evolving, and its unclear as yet what versions of the many available on-line encyclopedias will prove the best. Success is not so much a matter of organization of content as the ways contributions are managed and competent contributors are attracted.

Ad 3: The question may be whether a broad-ranging encyclopedia is more advisable than a narrow specialist version.

There is already a choice of types of online encyclopedia. Some are specialized like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and appear to be successful and benefit from a narrow focus. Most technical journals also are narrowly focused, and more and more are going on line. They appeal to the specialist, and may have very scholarly content. In contrast, a vast offering appeals to a large audience because readers expect that they will find something at such a site on any subject, and they don't need to consult a list of specialist sites.

To capture a wide audience, however, the content has to be readily accessible to a variety of users, which can be a challenge to the encyclopedia. There is a tendency to lose focus and become a hodge-podge of both very simple and extremely technical articles, reflecting the interests of those who write the articles. That variable level is not helpful to the reader, who may be disappointed either by finding not enough in a particular article or by encountering incomprehensible jargon. Different visions conflict, with some contributors cropping what is called "bloat", and some adding detail to improve accessibility. Google's encyclopedic venture Knol approaches this problem by having every author create their own article, possibly with co-authors they have personally invited to help. That eliminates disputes over vision, but at the expense of a chaotic structure where the reader has trouble finding what they are looking for, and must judge for themselves which of the articles they have managed to find is the more accurate.

So far, Citizendium has no established criteria regarding these issues.

How does this change people's lives?

Access to information has a fundamental effect upon people’s lives because, without it, they may end up making uniformed decisions contrary to their interests. Online encyclopedias improve decisions by offering readily accessible summaries of, and guided access to, authoritative sources of information. Easy access is important because people actually get into the habit of looking for information.

Ideally, with this access, the standard for fact-based opinion is raised, not only by the broadening of viewpoints garnered from the breadth of an article, but from the community acceptance that some simple research is a normal way to proceed. However, since search engines like Google can only list sources and not evaluate and recommend them, it is often difficult or even impossible to decide whether the information found is reliable, and even more difficult to establish whether it is complete. It is therefore important to establish sources that can be trusted and be used instead of arbitrary and often accidental search results.

For the contributors, it changes their lives in many more ways, as they learn more about this form of human interaction, and learn how to communicate better with a very wide public, rather than a narrow field of specialists. It also can happen (though less than one would like) that one experiences a new form of enjoyment in a new kind of creative process that involves learning not only the subjects that one collaborates upon, but also about one's own peculiarities that were not so obvious before. In particular, one learns that one's personal approach to topics can be improved upon, and that differences of opinion are opportunities, not a matter for rhetorical debates.

How do you see online collaboration nowadays?

The advantages of joining forces and collaborating are obvious, and we highly recommend the experience to anyone. However, there are also dangers. For example, if an article is "improved" over and over again by too many contributors, it easily loses focus and personality, and becomes overloaded with too many details.

Moreover, online collaboration, especially in anonymous settings, easily becomes a power play in which the crudest and rudest behaviour eventually dominates, and the goal of the enterprise becomes point-scoring or embarrassing opponents.

How do you see it in the future?

We hope that groups could form that would by virtue of their organization make collaboration the norm. A possible motivation is the fun that collaboration allows. We know of co-authors who found collaboration on a book or a wiki article a thrill, and also examples where the co-authors never spoke to each other again. Although writing can be motivated by many factors, for most authors (at least of scholarly works), the rewards are largely the realization of an idea and putting a picture together.

How does Citizendium survive?

(In terms of money - is it by donations, publicity?)

Citizendium is currently financed entirely through donations. Advertisements are prohibited by our Charter.

It survives because there happen to be some contributors ("Citizens") around who identify with the principles of the project, think that it is important and believe that it can succeed. We also receive donations from people who do not contribute otherwise, and we welcome that too.

In the long run, to survive and fulfil its ambitious goals, Citizendium will need many more competent contributors and a secure financial basis.

What guarantees the credibility of the information provided?

There is no guarantee for the credibility of any information other than, perhaps, that from primary sources. The advantage of freely accessible online resources is that anyone can verify the information provided there and - in the case of collaborative environments like Citizendium - correct or update it as necessary. This vindication process can be centred around expertise or the many-eyes principle, or combinations thereof, as we are trying at Citizendium.

The structure of Citizendium is intended to identify reliable content and insulate it from poor contributions. Thus, there are "approved" articles such as "Set theory" with "draft versions" where changes are suggested, but the main page cannot be changed without a formal process of acceptance by experts. This process should, in principle, improve quality and reduce contributors' need to repeatedly defend good content, but at the moment, Citizendium has too few Editors for the approval process to work properly. Presently, most articles on Citizendium do not have approved versions, and some that do exist are not of high quality because insufficient expertise has been brought to the approval process. The good thing about that is that improvements are always possible.

Ultimately the success of an encyclopedia project rests upon the climate under which it operates. A major effect upon the Citizendium climate is the requirement that contributors be identified with real names. The use of a real identity puts a damper upon wild editing by anonymous contributors and on the use of many aliases to create the appearance of popular support for opinions that are really those of only a few. Another major influence is the governance of the project, which can engender a civil and responsible environment, rather than allow cliques to bully contributors or enforce their own peculiar criteria for acceptance of content. Citizendium has seen several major clashes over the years, but overall, it has succeeded in creating a collegial atmosphere.

Is it difficult to establish a new free encyclopedia when you have others such as Wikipedia and when you have search mechanisms such as Google ?

It is always difficult to try to fill a niche that is already occupied, but Citizendium attempts to create its own niche in the world of free online encyclopedias by combining expert-based and crowd-based approaches. Wikipedia has recently scaled up, with some success, its efforts to increase expert participation. But still, Wikipedia's editorial policies are designed around consensus on crowd-sourced content, while ours are around expert approval thereof. The two are not necessarily aligned, and both can lead to editorial decisions that would, with hindsight, be regarded as wrong. The art, then, is to structure and manage the project such that the probability for errors of this kind is minimized, and Citizendium is an important experiment in this regard. Google's encyclopedic venture Knol is to close down later this year, and while Google searches are a major source of traffic to Citizendium, they only list and rank information and do not weave it into the structure of existing knowledge, so we do not see them as having significant overlap with the Citizendium niche.

As for readers, they do not have to choose between Citizendium and Wikipedia. Both are freely available, and different readers will have different preferences or approaches with regard to different subjects. But in order to succeed, Citizendium will have to become better known and establish enough of a good reputation, such that readers will consult it in spite of its often low ranking in Google search results.

The difficulty in establishing an encyclopaedia has to be an assessment over the long term. At the moment, Wikipedia has a great deal more attention than its competitors, and it appears that it cannot be dislodged from the niche it has occupied. However, that is not the whole story. A problem Wikipedia has unearthed but not solved is the ability to maintain interest among competent contributors. That difficulty arises from several sources, both of a technical and a sociological nature. For instance, professionals may feel little incentive to invest time and effort in sharing their specialist knowledge, especially when it involves a seemingly interminable and repetitive exchange on a Talk page with an audience of ever-changing membership. So free and open knowledge projects have to create reward systems and shape the interaction between specialist and amateur contributors. The editor-author arrangement and the approved and draft forms of articles are steps in this direction found on Citizendium.

It feels good to accomplish something, good to learn more about a subject by writing about it, good to engage with others in developing a topic. It is fun to learn new tricks, or to get things done in a group that are hard to do alone. We are conscious of these rewards and the problems, and we are exploring different approaches together. As a token for our community spirit, this interview has been drafted collaboratively, as can be witnessed through its page history.

The successful final form for the free encyclopedia has not yet been found. Citizendium is a fluid organization; it has succeeded in limiting (though not eliminating) contention; and it may be able to cope with the necessary evolution better than its competition − time will tell.