New York — The most novel online user-written encyclopedia Wikipedia is growing up, and with growth comes a massive change to how it functions. As in the past, Wikipedia articles could be edited by anyone. Now, the online encyclopedia is planning to enforce new restrictions on the open editing system in order to thwart pranksters and vandals by stalling edits to English articles about living people until the online encyclopedia verifies new information.
The changes were discussed Wednesday on the site’s blog, are intended to protect the “high-profile people who oftentimes become the target for pranksters and vandalism” on the site, said Jimmy Wales, a founder of the collective reference work, which numbers among the world’s 10 most visited websites.
Restricting the ability to make any alteration on the site, even if only in certain circumstances, marks a rare admission by Wikipedia that its famously open system needs more controls to maintain quality and prevent abuse.
The controlled editing policy being studied by the communally crafted repository of world facts is called “flagged revisions” because proposed edits are marked for review before being allowed on public pages.
“We are getting close to deploying flag software,” Wikipedia spokesman Jay Walsh, said in a statement. “We are testing it. Volunteers want to put it through its paces and break it in to find any problems.”
According to the new policy, which would be applicable to the English version of the site such as, any articles edited by new contributors will be examined by regular contributors, whose comments on the revisions will be posted with the article. Readers will have the option of seeing the article before the changes were made.
In a “small percentage of cases,” edited articles will have to be reviewed before they are posted, Wikipedia said. The rule will apply to articles at high risk of vandalism, such as biographies of controversial living people. In those cases, “false information can do the most serious harm to an individual,” Erik Moeller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said in the blog.
Currently, about a few thousand articles on the U.S. site are beholden to the new rule — such as those for President Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears — but Wikipedia wishes to broaden its scope and apply these new rules to every article about a living person. The German language version of Wikipedia already restricts editing on all of its articles, so it is not a long shot that a similar attitude may hit the U.S. site soon.
However, Wales asserted that the site would set a “very, very low threshold to entry” for anyone who wanted editing privileges. “We are looking at anybody who has been around a very short period of time [on the site and has not been blocked,” he added – a number that could top 100,000, based on the number of people who are already frequent editors to the site.
The new, minimalist editing process would allow Wikipedia to open these locked pages again to a wide range of people to make changes, and so represented more of a relaxation of the controls on the site than any greater level of restriction, Wales said. Vandalism is the reason behind the change. The latest changes are expected to be fully enforced within two to three months, following testing.
Wikipedia is no stranger to controversy stemming from articles. A recent example was the falsely reported death of Senator Edward Kennedy in January; a sad proclamation that is now, unfortunately, all too true. Last year Lutz Heilmann, a German member of parliament, sued the site, claiming portions of the entry about him were slanderous. Heilmann eventually dropped the suit, and changes to the article were made.
Launched in 2001, Wikipedia, which is supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, has made changes over the years to its editing policies to improve accuracy and prevent vandalism.