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University may be given the keys to Citizendium

Outgoing founder of 'scholarly Wikipedia' ponders who will govern the project in future. John Gill writes

An internet pioneer who launched a "Wikipedia for academics" after helping to found the original user-generated online encyclopaedia is considering handing the reins to a university when he steps down as editor-in-chief.

Citizendium (CZ) was set up in 2006 by Larry Sanger, a philosopher and co-founder of Wikipedia, to pool academic expertise for the greater good.

Like its precursor, which was launched in 2001, CZ is free to use, but unlike Wikipedia, it requires contributors to give their real names to ensure accountability. It also moderates unprofessional behaviour, uses expert editors and features peer-reviewed articles.

In 2009, Times Higher Education reported on in-fighting among users of CZ, some of whom claimed the site had progressed too slowly, with a disappointing tally of "finished" articles - claims robustly rejected by Dr Sanger.

Now he has indicated that he intends to step down as editor-in-chief of the project, with his executive committee in the process of finalising a charter for how to proceed.

Dr Sanger, who is based in the US, said he had always intended to step down a few years after CZ's launch, and he was adamant that the venture will continue to thrive.

One possible future model for governing the project could be handing the reins to a university or a scholarly press, he said. He added that there are a number of options being considered, with interest from major universities in both the US and the UK.

"One thing I will be asking committee members to think hard about is the possibility and conditions of a partnership with some sort of sponsoring or parent organisation - a university department, a non-profit think tank or an academic press, perhaps," he said.

"Such institutions may see some benefit in an association with a cutting-edge, innovative online community like ours. I think the Citizendium community, in turn, ought to be able to see some benefit from such an association."

Running the project had been "fairly cheap, but not free", he said, adding: "I am quite sure that we could be doing much more if we had a bigger budget."

CZ currently has about 12,000 articles, and Dr Sanger said he believed it is "just a matter of time before we become a leading online community and reference work".

Of his own departure, he said: "In community-built projects, in which many people have a roughly equal stake, there should be no 'leaders-for-life'."

The project is not without its detractors.

When THE reported on internal spats between Dr Sanger and CZ contributors last year, the story provoked dozens of comments online. These ranged from personal attacks on the leadership to complaints about the moderating process and suggestions that the articles are less scholarly than they purport to be.

One reader, citing Dr Sanger's impending departure, predicts that "Citizendium will close well before the end of 2010, with no tears from the public."

But Dr Sanger insisted that those forecasting the venture's demise are wrong.

"If I thought there was a chance that by stepping down I would cause CZ to fail, I would not do so until a really suitable replacement had been found. I'm not crazy."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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