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Wikipedia Considers Coloring Untested Text

Registered Wikipedia users may soon have access to software that colors text deemed untrustworthy.

In an effort to enhance the reliability of Wikipedia content, the WikiMedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, is weighing whether to offer an opt-in tool for registered users that colors untrustworthy text.

The software, WikiTrust, is available as an extension to the MediaWiki platform, upon which Wikipedia runs. It's a project developed by UC Santa Cruz professor Luca de Alfaro, and computer science grad students B. Thomas Adler and Ian Pye.

Reached in Buenos Aires, where Wikimania 2009 has just wrapped up, de Alfaro says that the timing of an experimental trial remains under discussion. The purpose of the trial, he says, will be to gather community feedback about the utility of the tool.

Despite its name, WikiTrust can't directly measure whether text is trustworthy. "It can only measure user agreement," said de Alfaro. "That's what it does."

Wikipedia remains a target for vandals, pranksters, and anyone with a motive to manipulate entries. The online encyclopedia's community of editors is constantly on the lookout for accidental and deliberate changes that introduce bias to articles.

In an e-mail, Jay Walsh, head of communications for the WikiMedia Foundation, says that the WikiTrust code is being reviewed by the organization's technology team and that the timing of a trial, if it happens, has not been determined.

"The Foundation is looking at a number of quality/rating tools for Wikipedia content, and for our other projects," he explained in an e-mail. "Many are as simple as 'rate this article' features, and some, like WikiTrust are experimental and more unique in their ability to examine other data to render some context on the article. In all cases we will deeply consult with our community of developers and editors before implementing any technology."

While users may make trust decisions based WikiTrust, de Alfaro said that the software should also be useful as an anti-vandalism tool.

Vetting Wikipedia content for reliability could enhance scholarly acceptance of the online encyclopedia. De Alfaro says that he expects WikiTrust will be used to help identify reliable content for distribution to schools.

"It's always frowned upon to use Wikipedia as something you cite because the content is variable," he said.

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