Wikipedia founder's scholarly web venture plays host to a war of words

Site founder Larry Sanger denies academic's claims of slow development and infighting, writes John Gill

January 22, 2009

It was set up by a philosopher with a reputation as an internet pioneer, who eschewed more lucrative opportunities in favour of a project to pool academic expertise for the good of humanity.

But despite its credentials, Citizendium (CZ), an online user-generated encyclopaedia designed to be a more academically rigorous take on Wikipedia, has run into troubled waters, an editor of its philosophy section has claimed.

The site is the brainchild of Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia, which has become one of the world's most successful internet ventures since it was launched in 2001.

Like its precursor, CZ is free to use, but unlike Wikipedia it requires that contributors give their real names to ensure accountability. It also moderates unprofessional behaviour, uses expert editors and features peer-reviewed articles.

Martin Cohen, who is also editor of The Philosopher magazine, contacted Times Higher Education with a series of concerns about the website.

In his critique, which he said was intended constructively, Dr Cohen claimed that the site, set up two years ago, had progressed slowly, with very few "finished" articles, and that its development had been marred by infighting.

He said the experts it used were even less likely to reach consensus than the amateurs who contribute articles to Wikipedia.

Dr Cohen added that consensus tends to be imposed on the supposedly collegiate community by Dr Sanger, who is editor-in-chief. Dr Sanger rejected this claim as "ridiculous".

The site's moderators, known as "constables", have prompted at least one academic to quit in protest against their "bowdlerising" of CZ's content, according to Dr Cohen. Another resigned after feeling that the views of specialist editors were not given sufficient weight, he claimed.

Dr Cohen himself was banned by a constable for breaking the site's privacy rules, after revealing on a CZ forum a personal email in which Dr Sanger had called him a "royal pain".

A good start, then problems

Dr Cohen's critique has been fiercely denied by Dr Sanger, who said that he was initially pleased when Dr Cohen, a fellow philosopher, joined CZ, but that he soon began causing problems.

He said that Dr Cohen's contributions to articles often amounted to "bold, sweeping claims without adequate evidence", and that his behaviour on the site had "begun irritating participants more and more". "He was frequently dismissive of the concerns of others and occasionally disrespectful", he said.

He claimed that Dr Cohen "became increasingly abusive" in his postings, culminating in the incident for which he was banned - a decision that Dr Cohen has asked CZ to review.

Responding to Dr Cohen's claim that CZ's experts often "do not get along" and that "debate usually ends up with personal insults and people resigning or being banned", Dr Sanger hit back, saying that most of its editors "get along rather well". "I should add that our disputes tend to be far more tractable, far less acrimonious and not at all Kafka-esque in the way one so often finds in such disputes in Wikipedia," he said.

Dr Sanger was backed by Gareth Leng, professor of experimental physiology at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the CZ executive. Professor Leng said: "No controversial article can avoid argument and discussion; the issue is whether the context is constructive or whether it is a continual battle for supremacy between incompatible views."

Another of Dr Cohen's criticisms was that, two years after its launch, CZ had "finished" only 86 pages, and that "some of these seem to be of dubious merit". Meanwhile, he said, "the Wikipedia monster continues to churn them out in the tens, even hundreds, of thousands".

"That is not an indictment of Larry Sanger, whose Citizendium is an important attempt at taming the power of the wiki - but perhaps it is an indictment of human nature," Dr Cohen added.

Dr Sanger, however, said that such criticism was "deeply unfair".

He said: "Our progress should not be measured on the number of approved articles - our articles are never 'finished'; by that measure, we are ahead of Wikipedia, which has no expert-approved articles at all. As of this writing, we count 9,119 articles as 'live', meaning they are in progress and we did not simply borrow them from another source without changing them. Besides, we are still very much a new project."

'Truly democratic'

He also insisted that, despite his differences with Dr Cohen, the spat was "not at all typical of what goes on (at) CZ", which is a "truly democratic institution".

"When it comes to defending the reputation and health of an idealistic, non-profit, academic-oriented project that I have put my life into for the last two years, forgoing more lucrative opportunities, I am not going to withhold relevant information out of politeness," he said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs