Wikipedia is formulating a plan to pay contributors of selected illustrations, according to a report this morning in the NYT. It's a big move, in principle at least, away from the site's longstanding all-volunteer content creation. Backers of the plan, however, say it's a vital step that must be taken in order for Wikipedia to close the quality gap with print reference materials. Scientific articles in particular are not getting the volunteer illustration they need with the current model.

The plan is reportedly being funded by a donation from MIT Prof. Philip Greenspun. Greenspun says he gave made a $20,000 donation earmarked specifically for paying illustrators but was envisioning $5 payments to illustrators in the developing world instead of Wikipedia's stated plan to pay $40 per illustration. Greenspun says no one from Wikipedia has contacted him since his check cleared.

This sounds like a great idea to me. I presume some Wikipedia purists will argue against it and it could lead to some kind of slippery slope - but I expect the program to run smoothly in time. It reminds me of sports blogging site Sportingo's mixed model of free user generated content augmented with licensed sports images and statistical databases. Wikipedia already has a fascinating Graphics Lab department where images are improved collaboratively (for free!). I can't help but wonder about for Wikipedia is checking for copyright of visual images. That may become more difficult than it had been previously.