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One great source -- if you can trust it

Middle-aged readers will easily recall a time when a good encyclopedia featured 20 or so leather-clad volumes, priced at $1,000 or more. These days, Microsoft Corp. will sell you a good Encarta encyclopedia on CD-ROM for $75.

Next stop, zero. As a matter of fact, we're already there. The world's biggest encyclopedia resides on the Internet, and anyone can use it for free. It's called Wikipedia. Created three years ago, it's becoming a major Internet information source. And if its creators can fix Wikipedia's one critical flaw, it might become the last general-interest encyclopedia the world will ever need.

The English-language version of Wikipedia contains more than 300,000 articles on a broad array of topics; the Encyclopaedia Britannica has just 65,000. There are another half-million Wikipedia pages written in dozens of other languages -- Malay, Swahili, and Frisian, to name a few. And of course it's free. All this knowledge is available to anybody with an Internet connection. Just go to www.wikipedia.com and dive in.

So of course Wikipedia is popular. Maybe too popular. For it lacks one vital feature of the traditional encyclopedia: accountability. Old-school reference books hire expert scholars to write their articles, and employ skilled editors to check and double-check their work. Wikipedia's articles are written by anyone who fancies himself an expert.

"We provide an outlet for people to write about what they love," said Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation, which publishes Wikipedia.

Think you know all there is to know about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis? Go to Wikipedia and write an article about him. Oh, wait -- it's already been done. But perhaps you think the current article isn't thorough enough. Just click "edit this page" and you can add to it, delete a few lines, or rewrite it altogether.

That's because this encyclopedia is also a wiki -- a kind of Internet site that allows visitors to make major modifications to the site's content. You've heard lots of buzz about Web logs or "blogs," where Internet pundits write running commentaries on current affairs. A wiki gives everyone a share in the conversation, by letting readers completely alter the material they're reading. The wiki software displays the newly edited version, while storing copies of all previous versions. If somebody writes that Miles Davis was an 18th-century Italian poet, a wiki editor can easily restore the earlier version.

But do the editors know enough to spot less obvious errors? Does the author know enough to avoid innocent blunders? How far can I believe what I read in Wikipedia?

Wales says the text is highly reliable. "If you compare our articles head to head against our competition -- Britannica, Encarta, and other encyclopedias -- I think they stand up very well." It would be good if some scholars randomly picked articles from Wikipedia and fact-checked them, but Wales admits that nobody's done this.

Instead, Wikipedia relies on the same approach used by open-source software developers, like the builders of the Linux operating system. Anybody can contribute, but a band of about 1,200 dedicated volunteers reviews the results. Every time someone adds a new article or changes an old one, the volunteers cull egregious errors, or delete false articles written by malicious vandals. The process usually happens within hours. "Everything is peer-reviewed in real time," Wales said.

But we don't know the reviewers or their qualifications, just as we don't know the authors. That's not to say that Wikipedia is worthless -- just that you wouldn't want to stake your life or your mid-term grades on the information here. That's why traditional encyclopedists aren't at all worried about competition from this free encyclopedia.

"I think it's exactly the right price," said Michael Ross, senior vice president of corporate development at Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. in Chicago. Major articles in Britannica are signed by the author; all articles are vetted by an experienced team of editors and scholars. The libraries that pay $1,500 for a set of bound volumes or the family that pays $60 a year for an Internet subscription are buying confidence as well as information.

Ross admits to reading and enjoying Wikipedia, and has even gotten ideas there for future Britannica articles. But the absence of traditional editorial controls makes Wikipedia unsuited to serious research. "How do they know it's accurate?" Ross asks. "People can put down anything."

It's one of the persistent weaknesses of the open-source approach. Linux programmers were forced to confront it when the software company SCO Group sued IBM Corp. for allegedly putting SCO software into Linux. Whatever the outcome of the case, it's caused a rethinking of how new code is added to Linux. Linus Torvalds, who heads the Linux development effort, has declared that all future contributors must sign their work and provide documents proving that the code is original. This wouldn't be a bad idea for Wikipedia, which could face legal action if someone published a plagiarized article.

But verifying the accuracy of Wikipedia articles is more important. The site will never achieve full acceptance until its content can be trusted. And according to Wales, that's going to happen.

"We're in talks with a publisher on doing a concise desktop reference, and that should come out next year," Wales said. He also has plans for more comprehensive printed editions of the encyclopedia. These will cost money, but a lot less than today's encyclopedias, because the writers and editors are volunteers. That means that Wikipedia can be distributed to the world's poorest people at reasonable cost.

"Britannica's out of the reach of your average African villager," Wales said. "But if a publisher can take our content for free and print it, the only cost he has to recoup is the cost of printing."

But no book publisher will print an encyclopedia -- even a cheap one -- if it can't stand behind the accuracy of its articles. "If we go to print, you can't just print out the latest nonsense," Wales said.

This realization forced the Wikimedia Foundation to start work on a formal editorial process for Wikipedia. Wales isn't sure how it will work yet; contributors might still be anonymous. But there will probably be an editorial board staffed with experts in various fields. They'll be identified by name with the Wikipedia, and stand behind the accuracy of its contents.

It's a plan that should give nightmares to traditional encyclopedists. If Wikipedia, pro-duced by volunteers, becomes just as trustworthy as Britannica, and far more comprehensive, who'll need any other encyclopedia?

A few years ago, Microsoft Corp. scoffed at free software; today the company is running scared. Britannica's Ross seems a lot more relaxed about his company's future. It's difficult to see why.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. 

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