One of the wonderful characteristics of Wikimedia’s wikis, including Wikipedia, is that every change ever made to a page is recorded, back to the very first version (compare, for example, the first version of the article about chess with the most recent version of the same article). This characteristic also makes it possible to assign quality assessments to specific versions, thereby giving our readers greater transparency about the perceived current or past quality of an article.

A very powerful software feature called Flagged Revisions makes it possible to systematize such quality assessments.  It’s been in production use in many of our wikis for more than a year now, including the second-largest Wikipedia, the German language edition. Fundamentally it’s a very flexible feature, and different project communities (the German Wikipedia, the English Wikibooks, etc.) can come up with configurations that suit their needs. By means of our public issue tracker, they can then request from the Wikimedia Foundation that such configurations be turned on.

Even though we’ve made no official announcements about this, you may have seen media reports that Flagged Revisions will soon be enabled in the English Wikipedia. Indeed, there is a specific proposal that was developed by the English Wikipedia community, entitled Flagged protection and patrolled revisions. It’s a very thoughtful proposal that attempts to balance the desire for higher quality, and more systematic assessment thereof, with the immediacy of Wikipedia as it exists today, and was supported by a large majority of interested Wikipedia editors. The idea behind this proposal is to allow regular contributors to systematize a first, basic assessment of all edits by new contributors. However, this assessment will be purely for informational purposes to the reader: a reader will see whether or not the version of an article they look at has been patrolled, and if not, whether a prior patrolled version is available.

Only in a small percentage of cases, we would require changes to be patrolled before becoming the default view for readers. The proposal is to do so initially in the case of articles at high risk of vandalism, including high risk biographies of living people, where false information can do the most serious harm to an individual.

A popular media narrative of this proposal (in the cases where it has been reported roughly correctly to begin with) is that it represents a “clamping down” on Wikipedia’s open editing process. That is nonsense. It is presently the case that many high-risk articles are completely uneditable by new contributors, which is referred to as page protection. For example, as a completely new user, you are not able to alter the article about Barack Obama. These kinds of protections of high-risk articles have been common for many years now. If the proposed model works as intended, it will actually allow us to open up many articles for editing which are currently protected from being edited. Edits will have to be patrolled, which is clearly a step up from edits not being possible at all.

It is true that some implementations of Flagged Revisions are more conservative than that. Any edit in the German Wikipedia by a new or unregistered user has to be patrolled before becoming visible to readers. This is definitely not the case in the proposed English Wikipedia configuration. We believe in letting our communities experiment with different approaches in an attempt to find the right balance.

A test wiki for the English Wikipedia configuration has just been set up in the Wikimedia Labs, and we’ll be importing articles from Wikipedia soon and make a broad call for testing. It’s important for us to get this right – we want to make sure that we don’t make Wikipedia harder to use, for our readers or our editors, in the process of deploying this functionality. That said, we hope to be able to deploy Flagged Revisions in production use on the English Wikipedia within 2-3 months.

From Wikimania in lovely Buenos Aires,
Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

[UPDATE 8/26] This post originally said that all biographies of living people would be “flagged protected”. This is not correct. The current proposal is for for articles that are currently under normal mechanisms of protection (where new and unregistered users cannot edit) to be eligible for the new protection model, which allows for more open editing. I apologize for the confusion; thanks to Sage Ross for the quick correction.