Wikipedia puts suspect changes on orange alert

By Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca. Online encyclopedia Wikipedia has long pushed for accuracy on par or better than regular encyclopedias. Now they are hoping a new tool will make it easier for users to spot potential mistakes or vandalism.

Wikipedia researchers have created a system called WikiTrust, which colour-codes the text of Wikipedia entries based on how reliable its source is.

Reliability of text in an entry is determined by a number of variables: the editing history of the person making the change, the editing history of the people who previously had edited the entry and how recent the change was. Older text that has survived multiple edits is more likely to be considered "trusted."

As Wikipedia software developer and neuroscientist Virgil Griffith of the California Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the project, told Wired: "They’ve hit on the fundamentally Darwinian nature of Wikipedia. Everyone’s injecting random crap into Wikipedia, and what people agree with more often sticks around. Crap that people don’t like goes away."

Suspect changes will appear with an orange background. As text within an entry becomes more accepted, its background will fade to a lighter colour, with the most reliable information having a regular white background.

WikiTrust is set to launch in the fall, one of a number of changes the online encyclopedia is expected to make to improve its reputation as a place for reliable information.

'Flagged' biographies another change

Last week the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit foundation that runs the online encyclopedia, said it was planning to add a feature that requires editors to sign off on some entries.

The Wikimedia Foundation is set to begin testing a feature called "flagged revisions," whereby entries on living people will need to be vetted by an experienced editor. The feature is already in use on the German version of Wikipedia, and some biographies of prominent or controversial figures have been "protected" to prevent vandalism of their entries.

Wikimedia spokesperson David Gerrard said the problem with "locking" biographies is that no one can edit them, a feature that isn't particularly useful for an encyclopedia that strives to be dynamic and react to the news.

Gerrard said about 1,500 administrators will be able to approve versions during the two-month trial, expected to begin in the next few weeks.

He said though the German website flags all entries but the English version is for now concerned with biographies, which he says are especially sensitive.

"Abusive or libelous information in a living bio can actually be damaging to the subject, and that's bad and wrong and not what we do this for," he said. "So anything in a living bio that's dubious needs a good source and evidence of relevance, or it can be summarily removed."

The planned changes come in response to criticism that has been levelled at the online encyclopedia since it first gained popularity: that allowing anyone to make changes invites errors and abuse of the system.

Earlier this year a false entry was posted claiming U.S. senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd had died after an inaugural luncheon in January. (Senator Kennedy passed away last week, while Senator Byrd is, last time we checked, still very much alive.)