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The foundation that runs Wikipedia has finally agreed to pay contributors to the online encyclopedia a modest fee for their work. But it won’t pay the thousands of people who participate in creating the wiki pages just artists who create “key illustrations” for the site.

The payments are made possible by a $20,000 donation from MIT Affiliate Philip G. Greenspun ’82, who said he was moved to give the money because of his experience seeing technical books he had originally published online appear in print.

“In comparing the Web versions to the print versions, I noticed that the publishers’ main contribution to the quality of the books was in adding professionally drawn illustrations,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “It occurred to me that when the dust settled on the Wikipedia versus Britannica question, the likely conclusion would be ‘Wikipedia is more up to date; Britannica has better illustrations.”’

The woman running the project for Wikipedia, Brianna Laugher, says the plan is to create a list of articles that need illustrations and then solicit the work. The first list is expected to have 50 illustrations and be completed this month. Contributors will be able to sign up for an illustration and have two weeks to submit it; if it is accepted, the illustrator will be paid $40.

“The standard payment will be $40, and depending on how it is received it could change in the future,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “I really don’t know if we will be flooded by illustrators clamoring to join, or if the general response will be one of apathy.”

While the German chapter of Wikipedia has received a grant from the government to write on sustainable development, and individuals have compensated contributors writing in underrepresented languages, the foundation has never before paid contributors. Commercial influence at Wikipedia — for example, outside advertising, which is forbidden — is always a touchy question.

Laugher said, however, that there has been little concern at discussion sites. “I think there is a difference between paying people to get the whole going versus paying people to do the parts that volunteers apparently don’t find rewarding,” she wrote. “The illustration project is definitely the latter.”

Greenspun hoped his grant might be the start of a larger fund at Wikipedia. He imagined payments of $5 — “I was thinking of illustrators in Romania and India” — but added, “I haven’t heard a peep from anyone since the check cleared!”