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Online Wikipedia is not Britannica - but it's close

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The assertion, which was false, proved to be the work of a prankster and showed how inaccuracies could be written into Wikipedia and persist for long periods despite the best efforts of the volunteer editors. That led to some alarming press coverage, especially on TV ("How bad is Wikipedia? Film at 11."), says Jimmy Wales, who cofounded Wikipedia in 2001 and is president of the nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation.

But in mid-December, Wikipedia won an endorsement from a prominent source. An analysis conducted by the journal Nature showed that, on scientific topics, an average Wikipedia article had about four "inaccuracies" (factual errors, critical omissions, or misleading statements), compared with about three inaccuracies per article in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The similarity in quality seemed remarkable given that Wikipedia is thought to be written by thousands of "amateur" enthusiasts and Britannica by carefully chosen - and paid - experts.

"It was good," Mr. Wales says. "It showed people Wikipedia isn't as good as Britannica, but it's pretty good. And we hope it's getting better all the time. That's our goal."

While it might seem that Wikipedia would be anti-elitist, welcoming contributions from anyone, Wales begs to differ. "I think Wikipedia is extremely elitist. We're a bunch of snobs. But it's an elitism of productive work, it's an elitism of results," he says in a phone call from the foundation's home in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We don't vet people on their credentials [before they can contribute], so maybe we're anti-credentialist." Instead, contributors earn reputations within Wikipedia based on the quality of their work, he says. "There's a real passion for getting it right."

In response to the Seigenthaler flap, Wikipedia now requires new contributors to register before they can create a new article. "We put a little speed bump in there," Wales says. "It didn't represent any kind of major policy shift." It's also considering further steps such as designating some areas of the Wikipedia as "finished work" and closing them off to editing.

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