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Wikipedia, Spartacus and the JFK Assassination


John Simkin
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<snip>

(1) It seems to me that Wikipedia will never be accepted by the academic community until it provides some details of who has written the article that the student wants to use. The student also needs to know something about the people who remove passages of the original article and links.

<snip>

(2) I often get emails from students asking me what my motivation is for producing the Spartacus encyclopedia (they have obviously been well-taught historians).

I reply that motivation is a complex issue that is not always fully understood by the person themselves. George Orwell wrote an article about this in September, 1946.

<snip>

(3) According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales made his money from former business ventures:

<snip>

(4) The internet might be able to do that but Wikipedia cannot do it. What it can do, and what it is doing, is to give one version of particular aspects of human knowledge.

(5) Wales clearly has got a lot of money and does not need to work again. Well, that is great for Jimmy Wales, but what about all those others who contribute their labour free of charge? What could their motivation be? Does it not seem a little strange that one of their tasks should be to remove links to other sources of information who are trying to make money from producing information free at the point of delivery (websites that include advertising). At the same time they allow links to websites which do not carry advertising. Why, because they are produced by governments or wealthy individuals. Now, why should these websites be more reliable than those with adverts? In fact, isn’t there more reason that these websites are attempting to push "political propaganda”.

Taking up John's points:

(1) Jimmy Wales himself often says the making of Wikipedia is like the making of sausages: you really don't want to know the details. That's a slight misquote of something always attributed to Bismarck, on sausages and laws (Wurst und Gesetze). Jimmy was saying that again on Tuesday evening, in London (he'd been talking to the LSE, and had an LSE researcher in tow, who is looking at the management of Wikipedia). I really don't think that Wikipedia articles (though some of them are good) can replace academic monographs. If someone does five years of a doctorate, they will come up with something that differs in kind. But those writings are read by very few, and are prohibitive to buy, unless you know exactly why you are looking at them. A good Wikipedia article provides very quick, accessible reading on a topic.

(2) I think Orwell is quite shrewd, at least in his own terms. Most active Wikipedia writers treat it as a hobby, in fact. (You can tell from the statistics that many people access Wikipedia at work, and mostly, one guesses, as an alternative to actual work.) My own motivations are not quite that.

(3) There is a fair amount on the record about Jimmy Wales; but (as usual) the media often don't have it quite right in parts. Basically he dropped out of graduate school to become a day trader, and did very well. Wikipedia was a surprise development out of Bomis, his dotcom. It was not the first plan for an online encyclopedia, but it succeeded where others had failed. Basically, I think the acceptance of the provisional naure of the articles was a breakthrough.

(4) Not quite how I see it at present. Of course Wikipedia articles are not the last word on anything. Thy are developing now a kind of dual nature, with a basic text kept deliberately simple, and many notes hanging off it.

(5) Wikipedia is now a big voluntary organisation (it has a paid skeleton staff). In fact Jimmy Wales has founded Wikia, which is a regular for-profit company hosting wikis, and so is back in business. On the business of links to sites with ads: the latest I hear is that there is a big rise in people 'spamming' Wikipedia with unsuitable links. All removals of links ought to be on a case-by-case basis; but there is quite a blacklist of sites that take advantage. In reply to the point about who is tasked with this: there is the group of admins (1000+ strong) who take on such things, under agreed guidelines (there is a WikiProject Spam). I would prefer to be writing articles, myself, but there is a division of labour on such things, and admins find their niches.

Thank you once again for replying in this debate. The reputation of Wikipedia has been much enhanced by your willingness to answer your critics in an open forum. I wrote to all the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee about the dispute about providing links on Wikipedia articles, but you were the only one who had the decency to reply. You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries. I hope Jimmy Wales is aware of your importance to the public image of Wikipedia.

I like most people who use the web, consult Wikipedia on a daily basis. In fact, every new page I create includes numerous links to Wikipedia pages. I genuinely believe that Wikipedia enhances the experience I give to my visitors. In most cases, the pages I visit give a fairly balanced view of the subject. The problem comes when the page is about a politician or an intelligence agent who has been involved in illegal and covert activities. I suppose the main reason is that the original writer is not aware of these events. After all, I spend my life studying this subject. When I come across examples like this I rarely edit the narrative of the page. Instead, I add a link to my own page on the person where I provide a referenced account of their past behaviour. I therefore get a bit angry when one of your editors removes this link on the grounds that I am spamming. I get even angrier when I get emails from people who claim they have been banned for providing links to my website. One cannot help but get suspicious when the people I am writing about are former CIA officials, agents or associates.

I can fully understand why you need to take action against spammers, but it is vitally important that you allow links to pages that contain alternative interpretations or provide supplementary information on the subject.

In many ways Spartacus and Wikipedia are rivals. When I have created a page on a subject, we often rank 1st and 2nd on search-engines. I think it is healthy that we provide different interpretations of past events. Students can then decide for themselves which one has got closest to the truth.

John writes:

"You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries."

I wholeheartedly agree, This lies very close to the heart of my concerns about Wikipedia (along with its obviously manipulated high search ratings on Google (and other search engines?), at least in many cases - although I guess Wikipedia can't be blamed directly for that).

In any event, the No 1 ranking obtained by Wikipedia for so many search terms puts great power in your hands. Anonymity should not be permitted - not at least for main entries (there's a stronger case for anonymous participation in discussions - accessible by clicking the discussion tag).

I'll be up front and say that I don't believe Wikipedia is likely to abandon its current policy of allowing anonymous editors any time soon. In part, that's because I don't believe that Wikipedia rteally does function as a volunteer organisation - not at its core.

But I could well be wrong - and I'd like to be proved wrong..

Suspicions like these can be lessened if editors are required to reveal their identity.

Importantly, users can also much better assess the credibility of material they are reading if the authorship is transparent.

Traditional quality encyclopedias identified entries by author; I believe Wikipedia should do the same!

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<snip>

(1) It seems to me that Wikipedia will never be accepted by the academic community until it provides some details of who has written the article that the student wants to use. The student also needs to know something about the people who remove passages of the original article and links.

<snip>

(2) I often get emails from students asking me what my motivation is for producing the Spartacus encyclopedia (they have obviously been well-taught historians).

I reply that motivation is a complex issue that is not always fully understood by the person themselves. George Orwell wrote an article about this in September, 1946.

<snip>

(3) According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales made his money from former business ventures:

<snip>

(4) The internet might be able to do that but Wikipedia cannot do it. What it can do, and what it is doing, is to give one version of particular aspects of human knowledge.

(5) Wales clearly has got a lot of money and does not need to work again. Well, that is great for Jimmy Wales, but what about all those others who contribute their labour free of charge? What could their motivation be? Does it not seem a little strange that one of their tasks should be to remove links to other sources of information who are trying to make money from producing information free at the point of delivery (websites that include advertising). At the same time they allow links to websites which do not carry advertising. Why, because they are produced by governments or wealthy individuals. Now, why should these websites be more reliable than those with adverts? In fact, isn’t there more reason that these websites are attempting to push "political propaganda”.

Taking up John's points:

(1) Jimmy Wales himself often says the making of Wikipedia is like the making of sausages: you really don't want to know the details. That's a slight misquote of something always attributed to Bismarck, on sausages and laws (Wurst und Gesetze). Jimmy was saying that again on Tuesday evening, in London (he'd been talking to the LSE, and had an LSE researcher in tow, who is looking at the management of Wikipedia). I really don't think that Wikipedia articles (though some of them are good) can replace academic monographs. If someone does five years of a doctorate, they will come up with something that differs in kind. But those writings are read by very few, and are prohibitive to buy, unless you know exactly why you are looking at them. A good Wikipedia article provides very quick, accessible reading on a topic.

(2) I think Orwell is quite shrewd, at least in his own terms. Most active Wikipedia writers treat it as a hobby, in fact. (You can tell from the statistics that many people access Wikipedia at work, and mostly, one guesses, as an alternative to actual work.) My own motivations are not quite that.

(3) There is a fair amount on the record about Jimmy Wales; but (as usual) the media often don't have it quite right in parts. Basically he dropped out of graduate school to become a day trader, and did very well. Wikipedia was a surprise development out of Bomis, his dotcom. It was not the first plan for an online encyclopedia, but it succeeded where others had failed. Basically, I think the acceptance of the provisional naure of the articles was a breakthrough.

(4) Not quite how I see it at present. Of course Wikipedia articles are not the last word on anything. Thy are developing now a kind of dual nature, with a basic text kept deliberately simple, and many notes hanging off it.

(5) Wikipedia is now a big voluntary organisation (it has a paid skeleton staff). In fact Jimmy Wales has founded Wikia, which is a regular for-profit company hosting wikis, and so is back in business. On the business of links to sites with ads: the latest I hear is that there is a big rise in people 'spamming' Wikipedia with unsuitable links. All removals of links ought to be on a case-by-case basis; but there is quite a blacklist of sites that take advantage. In reply to the point about who is tasked with this: there is the group of admins (1000+ strong) who take on such things, under agreed guidelines (there is a WikiProject Spam). I would prefer to be writing articles, myself, but there is a division of labour on such things, and admins find their niches.

Thank you once again for replying in this debate. The reputation of Wikipedia has been much enhanced by your willingness to answer your critics in an open forum. I wrote to all the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee about the dispute about providing links on Wikipedia articles, but you were the only one who had the decency to reply. You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries. I hope Jimmy Wales is aware of your importance to the public image of Wikipedia.

I like most people who use the web, consult Wikipedia on a daily basis. In fact, every new page I create includes numerous links to Wikipedia pages. I genuinely believe that Wikipedia enhances the experience I give to my visitors. In most cases, the pages I visit give a fairly balanced view of the subject. The problem comes when the page is about a politician or an intelligence agent who has been involved in illegal and covert activities. I suppose the main reason is that the original writer is not aware of these events. After all, I spend my life studying this subject. When I come across examples like this I rarely edit the narrative of the page. Instead, I add a link to my own page on the person where I provide a referenced account of their past behaviour. I therefore get a bit angry when one of your editors removes this link on the grounds that I am spamming. I get even angrier when I get emails from people who claim they have been banned for providing links to my website. One cannot help but get suspicious when the people I am writing about are former CIA officials, agents or associates.

I can fully understand why you need to take action against spammers, but it is vitally important that you allow links to pages that contain alternative interpretations or provide supplementary information on the subject.

In many ways Spartacus and Wikipedia are rivals. When I have created a page on a subject, we often rank 1st and 2nd on search-engines. I think it is healthy that we provide different interpretations of past events. Students can then decide for themselves which one has got closest to the truth.

John writes to Charles:

"You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries."

I wholeheartedly agree!

This lies close to the heart of my concerns about Wikipedia - along with its obviously manipulated high search ratings on Google (and other search engines?), at least in many cases - although I guess Wikipedia can't be blamed directly for that).

In any event, the No 1 ranking obtained by Wikipedia for so many search terms puts great power in your hands. Anonymity should not be permitted - not at least for main entries (there's a stronger case for anonymous participation in discussions - accessible by clicking the discussion tag).

The sceptic in me doesn't believe Wikipedia is likely to abandon its current policy of allowing anonymous editors any time soon. In part, that's because I don't believe that Wikipedia really does function as a volunteer organisation - not at its core. I suspect a hidden hand.

But I could well be wrong - and I'd prefer to be proved wrong, in this case.

Suspicions like these would be lessened if editors are required to reveal their identity.

Importantly, transparent authorship would also enable users to better assess the credibility of material in Wikipedia.

Traditional quality encyclopedias identified the authors of various entries.

Why can't Wikipedia do the same?

The answer proferred that "Jimmy Wales himself often says the making of Wikipedia is like the making of sausages: you really don't want to know the details" is witty but fails to convince.

Making an encylopedia is not like making sausages.

We do want to see the details.

Edited by Sid Walker
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<snip>

When I come across examples like this I rarely edit the narrative of the page. Instead, I add a link to my own page on the person where I provide a referenced account of their past behaviour. I therefore get a bit angry when one of your editors removes this link on the grounds that I am spamming. I get even angrier when I get emails from people who claim they have been banned for providing links to my website. One cannot help but get suspicious when the people I am writing about are former CIA officials, agents or associates.

I can fully understand why you need to take action against spammers, but it is vitally important that you allow links to pages that contain alternative interpretations or provide supplementary information on the subject.

<snip>

I should make a technical comment, to help clarify the position. "External links" (Wikipedia jargon) occur embedded in pages in quite a number of ways, but there are really two types.

Type I is as a Source. Examples are

- inline link: topic

- endnote link: the upmarket version of inline, topic<ref>+comment</ref>, producing an endnote whereever the <references/> tag is placed

- in a section headed Sources or References (myself I keep References for paper sources, but not everyone agrees)

Type II is as Further Reading; good practice is to place these links at the end in a section headed External links.

Now, if a link is used as a supporting source (Type I), it is treated very seriously if someone just removes it, leaving the topic unreferenced. Editors can get into big trouble for that (other things being equal: of course if the whole topic is going, it's another matter, but well-sourced material has plenty of protection in policy).

Type II links are another kettle of fish. It is one of those areas where you can't expect everyone to agree on exactly what should be included.

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John writes to Charles:

"You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries."

I wholeheartedly agree!

This lies close to the heart of my concerns about Wikipedia - along with its obviously manipulated high search ratings on Google (and other search engines?), at least in many cases - although I guess Wikipedia can't be blamed directly for that).

In any event, the No 1 ranking obtained by Wikipedia for so many search terms puts great power in your hands. Anonymity should not be permitted - not at least for main entries (there's a stronger case for anonymous participation in discussions - accessible by clicking the discussion tag).

The sceptic in me doesn't believe Wikipedia is likely to abandon its current policy of allowing anonymous editors any time soon. In part, that's because I don't believe that Wikipedia really does function as a volunteer organisation - not at its core. I suspect a hidden hand.

But I could well be wrong - and I'd prefer to be proved wrong, in this case.

Suspicions like these would be lessened if editors are required to reveal their identity.

Importantly, transparent authorship would also enable users to better assess the credibility of material in Wikipedia.

Traditional quality encyclopedias identified the authors of various entries.

Why can't Wikipedia do the same?

The answer proferred that "Jimmy Wales himself often says the making of Wikipedia is like the making of sausages: you really don't want to know the details" is witty but fails to convince.

Making an encylopedia is not like making sausages.

We do want to see the details.

Well, you'd be right that there is no interest in changing the pseudonymous character of editing at Wikipedia. The standard explanation is this: the editing process is entirely transparent, in that all changes are logged. Editors at the site have little difficulty in assigning 'reputations' based on track record. This is not the academic way, but then it is all more interactive: when puzzled, you can go and ask anyone why they wrote something, do they have a source for those facts, and so on.

As far as I'm concerned, there is no 'hidden hand'. There are plenty of editors who have some agenda, but the whole thing is too big (and spread over too many languages, also) for much major manipulation, though people are constantly trying for petty advantages. As for Google, their PageRank algorithm is a secret in the legendary Coca-Cola formula class. The only thing I heard about this was a while back, when it was being said that Google wanted Wikipedia to be ahead of its mirror sites (i.e. the same material posted elsewhere). I have no idea what foundation there was for that rumour. The more people linked directly to Wikipedia, the higher it would climb anyway.

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John writes to Charles:

"You are also one of the few editors who is willing to provide a photograph and biography on Wikipedia (something that this forum tries to enforce). I would have thought this was the bare minimum that was needed in order to provide some sort of credibility for writing and editing Wikipedia entries."

I wholeheartedly agree!

This lies close to the heart of my concerns about Wikipedia - along with its obviously manipulated high search ratings on Google (and other search engines?), at least in many cases - although I guess Wikipedia can't be blamed directly for that).

In any event, the No 1 ranking obtained by Wikipedia for so many search terms puts great power in your hands. Anonymity should not be permitted - not at least for main entries (there's a stronger case for anonymous participation in discussions - accessible by clicking the discussion tag).

The sceptic in me doesn't believe Wikipedia is likely to abandon its current policy of allowing anonymous editors any time soon. In part, that's because I don't believe that Wikipedia really does function as a volunteer organisation - not at its core. I suspect a hidden hand.

But I could well be wrong - and I'd prefer to be proved wrong, in this case.

Suspicions like these would be lessened if editors are required to reveal their identity.

Importantly, transparent authorship would also enable users to better assess the credibility of material in Wikipedia.

Traditional quality encyclopedias identified the authors of various entries.

Why can't Wikipedia do the same?

The answer proferred that "Jimmy Wales himself often says the making of Wikipedia is like the making of sausages: you really don't want to know the details" is witty but fails to convince.

Making an encylopedia is not like making sausages.

We do want to see the details.

Well, you'd be right that there is no interest in changing the pseudonymous character of editing at Wikipedia. The standard explanation is this: the editing process is entirely transparent, in that all changes are logged. Editors at the site have little difficulty in assigning 'reputations' based on track record. This is not the academic way, but then it is all more interactive: when puzzled, you can go and ask anyone why they wrote something, do they have a source for those facts, and so on.

As far as I'm concerned, there is no 'hidden hand'. There are plenty of editors who have some agenda, but the whole thing is too big (and spread over too many languages, also) for much major manipulation, though people are constantly trying for petty advantages. As for Google, their PageRank algorithm is a secret in the legendary Coca-Cola formula class. The only thing I heard about this was a while back, when it was being said that Google wanted Wikipedia to be ahead of its mirror sites (i.e. the same material posted elsewhere). I have no idea what foundation there was for that rumour. The more people linked directly to Wikipedia, the higher it would climb anyway.

Charles

Thanks for your reply.

I hate to be an nuisance... but it contains, IMO, no real substance.

After confirming that editiorial anonymity is likely to stay at Wikipedia, you provide no meaningful rationale for the policy.

Yes, contributions of individual anonmyous editors can be tracked (taking the software on faith).

But who are these anonymous editors? Why should their names be kept secret?

How can you counter suspicions that many of them - at least - are not bona fide volunteers but paid representatives of unidentified outside forces? (perhaps I should say 'inside forces')

I won't pursue the page ranking issue with you here. As I said, it is, after all, a matter more appropriately to be taken up directly with the search machine companies.

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I'll add one more reason why I think that named editors are a prerequisite for a credible encylopedia.

Many subjects are controversial. A comprehensive enclopedia should therefore attempt to ensure that all perspectives are given a fair airing - or at least, that none are excluded.

If there are to be exclusions, that should be explicit (and reasons provided).

The current system makes accountability of this type impossible.

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Charles

Thanks for your reply.

I hate to be an nuisance... but it contains, IMO, no real substance.

After confirming that editiorial anonymity is likely to stay at Wikipedia, you provide no meaningful rationale for the policy.

Yes, contributions of individual anonmyous editors can be tracked (taking the software on faith).

But who are these anonymous editors? Why should their names be kept secret?

How can you counter suspicions that many of them - at least - are not bona fide volunteers but paid representatives of unidentified outside forces? (perhaps I should say 'inside forces')

I won't pursue the page ranking issue with you here. As I said, it is, after all, a matter more appropriately to be taken up directly with the search machine companies.

This is an important point that will not go away. All people all contribute free time to a project have their own motives. An historian could not assess the validity or reliability of a source without knowing something about the person who produced it.

I will develop this point in more detail later today when I look at a battle taking place about an entry for a school in France.

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After confirming that editiorial anonymity is likely to stay at Wikipedia, you provide no meaningful rationale for the policy.

Yes, contributions of individual anonmyous editors can be tracked (taking the software on faith).

But who are these anonymous editors? Why should their names be kept secret?

The rationale is the goose and the golden eggs. Internal debate has always raged on just this issue: but the point that has always won out is this: the mission statement is 'write the encyclopedia', with everything else subordinated.

People have numerous reasons for guarding their privacy: some are Internet-related, i.e. general things such as child protection apply. One you might not have thought of is this: junior untenured academics wanting shelter if they disagree with senior academics, who one day will have decision-making power over their careers.

The new Citizendium site is set up much more on a traditional academic model. The jury is still out on whether they'll be able to make it work. (They have more cash than Wikipedias has ever seen.)

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Could you tell me what credentials your contributors are required to hold, and if they are, in fact, college or university degreed academicians?

There is no minimum qualification. Quite a large number of contributors are in high school.

***********************************************************************

"There is no minimum qualification. Quite a large number of contributors are in high school."

What kind of credentialed academicians do you have overseeing the contributions being made by these high school students, or other non-qualified contributors?

What Quality Assurance measures or controls do you have in place to ensure that the data being distributed by Wikipedia is of sound or quantifiably researched information, and not merely something shot off from the whim or opinion of a supermarket tabloid reader?

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What kind of credentialed academicians do you have overseeing the contributions being made by these high school students, or other non-qualified contributors?

What Quality Assurance measures or controls do you have in place to ensure that the data being distributed by Wikipedia is of sound or quantifiably researched information, and not merely something shot off from the whim or opinion of a supermarket tabloid reader?

None and none, is the straight answer. We have plenty of qualified people (we have academics at the equivalent of Nobel Prize level); but there is no _institutionalised_ structure giving them an oversight role.

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After confirming that editiorial anonymity is likely to stay at Wikipedia, you provide no meaningful rationale for the policy.

Yes, contributions of individual anonmyous editors can be tracked (taking the software on faith).

But who are these anonymous editors? Why should their names be kept secret?

The rationale is the goose and the golden eggs. Internal debate has always raged on just this issue: but the point that has always won out is this: the mission statement is 'write the encyclopedia', with everything else subordinated.

People have numerous reasons for guarding their privacy: some are Internet-related, i.e. general things such as child protection apply. One you might not have thought of is this: junior untenured academics wanting shelter if they disagree with senior academics, who one day will have decision-making power over their careers.

The new Citizendium site is set up much more on a traditional academic model. The jury is still out on whether they'll be able to make it work. (They have more cash than Wikipedias has ever seen.)

Charles - thanks again for replying.

People do indeed have many good reasons for guarding their privacy - on and off the net.

However, the question is whether it's appropriate to maintain anonymity when contributing entries to the most widely-read encylopedia in the world.

In my opinion it isn't - and such a policy is bound to lead to increasing suspicion and distrust.

Of course, it's easy to be an armchair critic. In fairness, creating an online encyolpedia of Wikipedia's size is a remarkable achievement, whoever lies behind the project!

Nonetheless, I believe Wikipedia's editorial anonymity policy must be superceded if Wikipedia wishes to gain long-term credibility as a bona fide venture - a venture that at least attempts to uphold principles of accountability even though clandestine forces may get involved in the project (just as they are involved in academia and the mass media)

It's hard to imagine folk with the smarts to create Wikipedia in the first place are unable to devise a successful plan to achieve greater transparency and accountability over time - while still safeguarding the golden egg.

After all, the 'golden egg'- at this stage in the project - has already been laid.

Edited by Sid Walker
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What kind of credentialed academicians do you have overseeing the contributions being made by these high school students, or other non-qualified contributors?

What Quality Assurance measures or controls do you have in place to ensure that the data being distributed by Wikipedia is of sound or quantifiably researched information, and not merely something shot off from the whim or opinion of a supermarket tabloid reader?

None and none, is the straight answer. We have plenty of qualified people (we have academics at the equivalent of Nobel Prize level); but there is no _institutionalised_ structure giving them an oversight role.

**********************************************************

"None and none, is the straight answer. We have plenty of qualified people (we have academics at the equivalent of Nobel Prize level); but there is no _institutionalised_ structure giving them an oversight role."

Surely your editors, or those who might be thought of as censors should be required to, or at least carry enough weight, say that of a Nobel, to qualify as an overseer? I would be hard- pressed to believe, or even want to venture that for one moment you might have some high school student contributor, or "tabloid reader" making those kinds of calls, especially at a site advertizing itself as an internet encyclopedia. That would be a sham, wouldn't you say?

Thank you for your time in answering these questions.

Edited by Terry Mauro
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