Digital Universe wants to be the Wikipedia academics can count on

But is there interest in a for-pay, ad-free portal of "authoritative" work? How much better than Wikipedia does it have to be?

Digital Universe wants to be a more authoritative version of Wikipedia,  eSchool News reports.  Founded by high-tech entrepreneur Joe Firmage, the company plans to service the academic market by paying top academics to create authoritative articles, maps and pointers to other research.

A pilot version that debuted in January includes 50 or so portals, or entry points, on topics such as technology, the Earth, and the solar system. Firmage says it will mushroom to at least 500 portals by next year and 10,000 by 2011.

Clicking on the Earth portal, for example, presents the visitor with links, reportedly vetted by experts for accuracy, to related articles, images, lists of frequently asked questions, and other resources from sites such as MSNBC.com, NASA, and the University of Hawaii's department of geology and geophysics.

But critics like cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow doubt this particular version of a Wikipedia you can bet your house on will fail:

"Something like this [Digital Universe] is a vision of the future that will probably come to pass, but it won't be implemented like this because their vision is too comprehensive. They want to cover everything, which is generally a bad way to go."

Firmage is betting there's a place for an information portal not owned by public Internet companies.

"One of the reasons I feel very confident in the long-term viability of this entire effort is that, unlike all of the major information resource providers out there, this will be owned and governed," he said, "entirely by nonprofits."

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