Larry Sanger never meant for Wikipedia to be a joke. He meant for it to be the ultimate user-generated encyclopedia where people would share and exchange knowledge.
For the most part, it is. But, according to its founder, users never know when the information on the site is outdated or has been posted by someone who is less than knowledgeable on a topic.
"Its content is uneven in quality," Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, said. "In science and technology, the articles are rather good but in social science and humanities, they are rather amateurish."
Those are the problems that motivated Sanger to start his new site, Citizendium.org. Sanger calls it an "encyclopedia project" that will be open to the public, much like Wikipedia, but guided by expert editors and contributors. It is geared towards the same audience that reads The New York Times or The Encyclopedia Britannica.
Within the next few weeks, Citizendium will be open to users by invitation only. It is currently in a "private alpha" mode where users have to apply for an invitation to participate. Sanger hopes that he can lift the restrictions at least by the end of the year.
When Sanger wrote instructions for Wikipedia, he wrote "ignore all rules." Now he wishes he hadn't, because he thinks that his tongue-in-cheek instructions were taken too literally.
"I never intended to enshrine anarchism, but many people regard that absolute lack of control as essentially their birthright," he said.
With Citizendium, anyone can contribute articles, but they will be approved by an established editorial board.
Furthermore, anonymous entries are no longer welcome. Users will be asked to contribute under their real names.
"Widespread anonymity leads to a lot of trolling," Sanger said. "As a result, the whole system is off-putting to a lot of people, including the most valuable contributors: academics, scholars, scientists, etc."
Contributors won't have to show identification under their real names, but the system will work on the honor system. Sanger says that every online community has its trouble makers but he hopes that good intentions will rule the contributions.
Currently, several established academics have signed on to help as editors or constables, people who patrol the site looking for bogus entries, including Gareth Leng, professor of experimental physiology of the University of Edinburgh. Sanger is actively searching for more help.
In order to be an editor in a specific field, Citizendium requires that academic contributors have the qualifications for a tenured-track professor and professional contributors have qualifications for the profession that they are contributing towards, plus three years of experience.
"Those are requirements for the pilot project but the plan is to allow editors to be self selecting," Sanger said. "We'll post the requirements in terms of degrees on the wiki itself and when it is out of the pilot phase, people will be able to make the judgment themselves whether they have the qualifications. They'll have to link that they have the qualifications but otherwise it's going to be a very much a wiki. It's a Web 2.0 approach to getting editors involved."
Sanger does not call Citizendium an encyclopedia. He calls it an "experimental workspace" and hopes that in the future, the project's governing body will vote on when to call it an encyclopedia.
Citizendium is currently a volunteer project, meaning no one, including Sanger, is getting paid to get it off the ground. It has been supported by contributions and Sanger is exploring corporate sponsorship.
"I personally don't see anything wrong with those things as long as there are controls in place that make sure that those sponsorships are not used in ways that influence the editorial process," he said.
"I can't make any guarantees because of the nature of the project," Sanger said. "No one has really ever done this before. We've got to have a number of certain things in place such as a certain number of constables and editors. I think it might take six weeks. It could be less but it could well be more."