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Online editors battle over congressman's Wikipedia entry
By Evan Lehmann, Transcript Washington Bureau

Monday, August 7
WASHINGTON — It's a Wikiwar, and Congressman Martin Meehan is in the crossfire of the Internet hostilities.

Impassioned Wikipedians, the dedicated editors of the online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, have been arguing among themselves about what should, or should not, be included in encyclopedic entries on politicians.

One side believes that Meehan's staff deleting controversial information from his Wikipedia entry is relevant material for a factual and objective online source. They point to the national news stories that followed the revelation as one reason to include the reference.

The other side says the incident, and others like it, are mundane tidbits that could erode the credibility of Wikipedia, which has struggled to become a legitimate and trusted source while simultaneously maintaining its popularity as one of the Internet's most visited sites.

The warring sides have slashed and counter-slashed Meehan's Wikipedia entry, at times pasting-in descriptions of his staff's tampering last year, only to have it deleted by opposing editors hours or minutes later.

In the world of Wikipedia, the dispute is called an "edit war."

Casual visitors to the site are unlikely to notice the back-and-forth bombing. Behind the scenes, however, several editors on each side of the debate have been arguing for months. Wikipedia guidelines requesting civility have occasionally been disregarded, with editors insulting each other on the "talk" pages where disputes are waged.

Stern warning

In late June, at the height of the edit war, a Wikipedia administrator issued a stern warning — it was punctuated by a red stop sign symbol. The argument, and editing, had expanded to include Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, whose staff also made changes to the encyclopedia.

"The standard of personal interaction and level of personal attacks on this page is appalling," wrote the administrator, identified as File Eireann, in interrupting the argument on the talk page. "The greatest Wikipedians are polite to those they disagree with."

The Transcript reported in January that Meehan's chief of staff, Matt Vogel, authorized an intern to delete portions of the existing Wikipedia entry on Meehan and replace it with a laudatory biography of the Lowell Democrat.

References to Meehan's promises in the early 1990s to limit his congressional service to four terms, ending in 2000, were deleted along with references to his robust campaign account.

News accounts of the Coleman changes were published three days later.

Wikipedians viewed the changes as an assault on the open-source encyclopedia, whose creator

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seeks to make it an objective tool; an overriding Wikipedia rule calls for editors to abstain from including their own point of view.

"It was a major press event that Meehan himself felt significant enough to release a press statement on," said Yeago, an editor who's pasted the staff transgressions into Meehan's entry multiple times.

"Had his staff broke into The New York Times and made these revisions, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

But others believe there's no room for such references, which they compare to a lawmaker's tie color or their appearance at a press conference. Because the incidents directly involve Wikipedia, including them in political entries appears boastful and self-important, they argue.

"We have to be reasonable about keeping out trivia that may be interesting to some people, but not at all relevant for a bio in an encyclopedia," said an editor identified as 172.

Another complained that readers who see the references will "think Wikipedia is a joke of a encyclopedia."

Meehan spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom could not access the talk page. She said the site had blocked her computer, similar to the firewall that was erected against House offices after the Transcript's article in January.

But she questioned the significance of the behind-the-scenes debate.

"I look at this like a Star Trek chatroom," she said.

Salstrom added in a written response later that "Congressman Meehan has never seen the site and relies on accurate resource materials such Britannica and Webster's."

Wikipedia has more than three million articles in 10 languages, with nearly 1.3 million articles in English. On Friday, Wikipedia.org was the 15th-busiest Web site on the Internet, according to alexa. com, a subsidiary of Amazon.com that tracks Web traffic. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, did not respond to requests for comment.

Appearing in Cambridge on Friday at Wikimania, a three-day event held for fans of the online encyclopedia, Wales emphasized the need for better quality in the articles. Consistency will build legitimacy, he said.

"Although we've always had this goal of Britannica quality or better, we're not there yet," Wales said, according to The Associated Press. "We should continue to turn our attention away from growth and toward quality."

     
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