In September 2006, Clay Shirky published a column on his view about the editorial process of the Citizendium: “Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise“. A few days later, Larry Sanger – co-founder of the Wikipedia and founder of the Citizendium – responded to the criticism in “Larry Sanger on me on Citizendium“. Basically, the debate is about an essential question for any “content store”: who is going to produce the content to publish?
For a paper encyclopedia, this question is a non-issue: there is no simple way to have everyone chip in and write (or draw, or whatever) a piece of what is wanted, and then ask a panel of experts to wade through the collected material and distill a coherent encyclopedia from it. So there you have the essential “expert model”: an editorial panel looks for the “best” expert on the subject matter required, and asks them – with or without a form of peer review – to produce texts etc.
Does that model, which more or less corresponds to what Larry Sanger organised for the Citizendium, work on the Internet? Well, according to Ars Technica, it doesn’t: “Citizendium turns five, but the Wikipedia fork is dead in the water“. The comparison, in terms of existing lemmas and in terms of daily edits is clearly in favor of the Wikipedia model… Time to call victory for Clay Shirky?
I’m not entirely convinced, since there may well be other reasons for the limited succes (I don’t call it a straight failure, because it isn’t) of Citizendium. Does the world really need two (or even more) encyclopediae? I don’t think so, and I do not think that I am the only one to do so. So why would anyone, expert or not, invest time and energy in a less successful endeavour, compared to the Wikipedia?
The expert model, albeit in a modified model, does seem to work for other encyclopediae. Take the Austria-Forum (
http://www.austria-lexikon.at/), for example. The Austria-Forum is using Wiki-software to build an encyclopedia about Austria, but they do not allow any user to edit the content of the encyclopedia itself. Users can interact with the editors through the “community section” of the site. A 2008 paper titled “AUSTRIA-FORUM: A CITABLE WEB ENCYCLOPEDIA“ explains the system. The number of entries in the Austria-Forum may not match that of the austrian version of the Wikipedia, but it would take a detailed analysis of a significant number of articles to call one of a higher quality than the other.
In the end, the real question is not whether one way of working is better than the rest. What matters is that the way things are organized fits within the context. If it helps you reach the stated goals, works fluidly, and can (is) adapted when circumstances change, then it can’t be bad? Just make sure that you what you’re doing – and reading the articles mentioned is a good way of getting to know quite a few obstacles that you might encounter.
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