When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as pope last year, some internet users who logged onto Wikipedia to see what he looked like found a rather different image: that of the evil emperor from 'Star Wars'.
The prank lasted only a minute or so before someone fixed it, but it highlighted one of the chief problems faced by the online encyclopedia: how to remain open enough that anyone can contribute entries and edit them, while also keeping pranksters at bay.
In the coming days Wikipedia will begin using a new system at the German version of its website that it hopes will fix that problem. If successful, the system is likely to be introduced at Wikipedia sites in other languages.
At the German site, users who have been registered for four days or more will be able to flag a recent entry as being correct and unvandalised, effectively locking it for a period of time. People will be able to update the entry with new material, but it won't be visible as part of the main entry until another trusted contributor has flagged the updates as being correct.
Four days may not seem a long time to become 'trusted', but it should be enough to deter troublemakers who come up with an idea to deface the site on a whim, said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, at the IDC European IT Forum in Paris today.
The idea isn't to flag all of the half million or so entries on the German site, just the contentious or topical ones likely to attract attention-seekers, he said. People who visit the entry will be able to see that it's flagged as vandal-free, and have the option to click through and see the recent additions that have not yet been vetted.
He unveiled the German plan in August at the Wikimania conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it's likely to go live any day now.
"I'm just off to look at the software to see if it's ready," Wales said today. The exact details are still being worked out and the flagging system may be updated even after it goes live, depending on what works best, he added.
It's one of several measures that Wikipedia has taken to improve the quality of its content, some of which have drawn criticism for making the encyclopedia less open. At Wikimania, Wales also talked about creating 'stable' or 'static' pages for entries that are considered complete, to help people who want to cite them in published works.
The plan being tested in Germany appears designed to root out mischief, as opposed to inaccuracies that may be harder to detect.
The question of accuracy spurred Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger to unveil plans last week for a 'progressive fork' of Wikipedia called Citizendium (a compendium created by citizens), which will enlist so-called experts to resolve disputes and verify that entries are correct. The experts will have to publish their credentials online to verify they are who they claim to be.
Citizendium will begin life as a mirror of Wikipedia, the contents of which can be used by anyone under its GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License). But articles that have been updated at Citizendium will remain that way in the future, according to a description.
Wales noted that the content of Citizendium will also be available under the GFDL, so if the site is successful, Wikipedia will be able to incorporate the changes back into its own site.
Asked about Citizendium in Paris, Wales said that he and Sanger had a 'difference of vision', but he said the two men are 'still friends'.
Some animosity seems to exist, however. One of the entries flagged as 'disputed' at Wikipedia is Sanger's biography. Sanger calls himself a co-founder of Wikipedia, a claim that Wales disputes.
"He used to work for me," Wales said in Paris. "I don't agree with calling him a co-founder, but he likes the title."