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Encyclopedias Compared

Dec - 15 - 2005
Nicole C. Engard

Nature has posted a comparison of Wikipedia and Britanica and the results aren’t that surprising – at least not to me.

I’ve posted (as have many others) about the recent changes in Wikipedia due to major media coverage.

However, an expert-led investigation carried out by Nature – the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science – suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule.

Although I wouldn’t use Wikipedia as my main (or only) source for a research project, I often find myself starting there when I need to find information about a specific topic. But no one resource is perfect, who’s to say that just because Britannica comes in print that it’s more accurate?

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

It’s almost like the difference between open-source software and proprietary software … the open-source is free so most people regard it as less effective than the software you buy in the stores. But the fact is that the open-source software is always going to get fixed faster – and better than the stuff you buy. The reason? There are more politics & levels to go through in the big companies to get an edit through – with open-source someone just makes the change, tests it, and releases it … okay maybe it’s not that simple, but you get my point.

4 Responses so far.

  1. [...] Back in December there was a lot of news coverage regarding an article in Nature magazine that stated that both Wikipedia and Britannica had a similar number of errors. Well Britannica has replied with a 20 page report (which I have not read all of – for reasons already stated – I’m way behind) In its December 15, 2005, issue, the science journal Nature published an article that claimed to compare the accuracy of the online Encyclopædia Britannica with Wikipedia, the Internet database that allows anyone, regardless of knowledge or qualifications, to write and edit articles on any subject. Wikipedia had recently received attention for its alleged inaccuracies, but Nature’s article claimed to have found that “such high-profile examples [of major errors in Wikipedia] are the exception rather than the rule” and that “the difference in accuracy [between Britannica and Wikipedia] was not particularly great.” [...]

  2. [...] I’m sure you remember the Nature/Britannica debate back in December of 2005 and March of this year. If you don’t you can read about it here and here. [...]

  3. [...] The Wall Street Journal Online has an interesting email conversation between Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Britannica. For those of you who are behind on the encyclopedia debate you can find my other posts here, here and here. [...]

  4. [...] the back and forth in the Wikipedia/Britannica debate, Britannica caves: Long a standard reference source for scholarship, largely [...]


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