Why did you do your PhD - an interview with Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia and founder of Citizendium

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The German network of PhD candidates and Postdocs, Thesis, publishes (in German) a quarterly journal, THESE, on doctoral and postdoctoral matters, mainly in Germany. For the autumn 2008 issue, I conducted an interview with philosopher Larry Sanger whose postdoctoral activities on the organization of knowledge in projects like Wikipedia, Citizendium and WatchKnow, will certainly be of interest to knowledge workers beyond Germany, and thus an advance online version of the interview is given here.

Why did you do your PhD, what does this have to do with your current activities, would you do it again?

I did my Ph.D. because I have wanted to earn a living as a philosopher since I was about 17 years old. Until I finished my M.A. I thought I would become a philosophy professor; then I became disillusioned with academia in a way that I imagine is pretty typical. I decided to finish my Ph.D. simply because I was so close to doing so, and just in case I changed my mind.

Having gone through the entire academic credentialing process has helped my career and current activities in many ways. It has acquainted me with the nature and justification of editorial and academic standards, and that has proven to be invaluable in leading reference work projects. I think having specialized in philosophy and in epistemology in particular, as well as in philosophy of law, also has helped me to articulate and defend the particular approach I have to collaborative knowledge production. Of course, the mere degree itself has opened doors and made me seem more credible to some of the people I've been trying to organize.

I would certainly do it again. But I might also have taken a few years off and gotten a B.A. or M.S. in Computer Science as well.

Why should PhD candidates and PhD holders contribute to Citizendium, as opposed to other online encyclopedic projects (Wikipedias, Knol, Encyclopedia of Earth, Scholarpedia, Larousse etc)?

There are many potential reasons why an academic might want to contribute to the Citizendium. I believe most do so because they find its unique mission compelling. What do I mean by that? It is the only project in existence with its configuration of qualities. On the one hand, it is a general, open content encyclopedia, fully collaborative, and open to public contribution. On the other hand, we make a general oversight role for experts, and we require real names. This unique combination of policies appeals to those who understand and appreciate the benefits and potential of Wikipedia, but who also understand the drawbacks of Wikipedia's particular system.

In short, the Citizendium may be, currently, the world's best hope for summing up knowledge both freely and credibly in one place. Other projects, such as Knol, Encyclopedia of Earth, and so forth, all have their good points, but they also all have a variety of drawbacks. Perhaps the largest drawback of the other academic-led projects is that very few of them are robustly collaborative. While I can't take the time here to explain my arguments for this, I think that collaboratively produced encyclopedia articles can be far superior to what is produced by individuals. So, while time will tell, I think the Citizendium holds the greatest promise; insofar as others agree with me, they naturally want to be part of something that is so world-changing and so important to spreading knowledge of their fields.

What about non-English sections? And would Citizendium be affected by the recently revised peer review policy at the German Wikipedia?

I'm not able to speak to the revised peer review policy at the German Wikipedia. My understanding is that they are not really engaging in peer review, but making sure that there is not abuse in revisions made by the newest contributors. Simply checking that edits are not vandalism addresses a different problem. It is obviously very far from anything like robust expert involvement or credible peer review.

We do hope to expand into other languages, including German, but it is more than a big enough challenge to get the English Citizendium off the ground very well at this time. The real difficulty will be to find people who will lead the new projects, in other languages, on a full-time basis. We might end up simply announcing a sort of rough franchise of the idea of the Citizendium.

What are the long-term perspectives of integrating encyclopedic projects (which generally operate a "no original research" policy) with scholarly wikis, e.g. of the OpenWetWare type?

I have given that quite a bit of thought, and for a long time I thought that it would be both possible and desirable to pool forces, somehow. Having tried to start the Citizendium as a fork of Wikipedia, however, has given me insight into the special difficulties of incompatible editorial policies and very different communities, or editorial processes. The most profound discovery I think I have made is that content deeply encodes editorial policy, and for that reason it is extremely difficult if not impossible to merge projects that have very different or incompatible editorial policies. But even small differences in editorial policies can have huge effects. So my hopes are not high for usefully combining content projects online, generally. One has only to look at answers.com and other search and reference aggregators, and one gets a sense of what the problem is.

We are, of course, open to people porting content from dormant content projects, but, as you can well imagine, we are not really interested in changing our own editorial policies to make a wholesale merger happen. So any proposal we (or others) might make about a content merger would simply be an invitation to close down their shop and adapt their content to our system. Few if any people will be able to take such an invitation seriously, at least not until we are more credible.

What seems more possible is that content sources might populate Citizendium subpages--pages where you can find different kinds of reference information about a topic.

Citizendium has also launched an educational initiative, Eduzendium. Considering that young researchers near the completion of their PhD are often involved, in overlapping or adjacent periods, with both the student and the teaching side of coursework, is there something special that they might gain from or offer to this project?

Eduzendium has already been successfully demonstrated to be a very innovative, interesting assignment for university students. The task of crafting an excellent, broad introduction to a topic might be easy and boring to the instructor, but to students--especially advanced students—it presents exactly the sort of challenge from which they can learn most. In addition, students whose work is displayed publicly tend to do their best; and they are also sometimes helped by Citizendium authors and editors. You might have heard of instructors assigning work on Wikipedia for college credit. Eduzendium is similar, but we have many, many more topics that are completely open; and our community is far better behaved. In some ways it is a superb venue for public, collaborative writing by advanced students.

Intructors use Eduzendium in a few different ways. For example, you can assign students specific topics, or you can assign groups (or the whole class) work on a topic. It is quite adaptable and I would strongly encourage your readers to give it a try! You will benefit, and by giving free content to the whole world, many others will benefit along with you.

A good occasion for that would be our Write-a-thons on the first Wednesday of each month or the Workgroup Weeks, starting with Biology Week from September 22-28.

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