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March 25, 2006

What is Up With Britannica and Wikipedia?

Or for that matter, the London based magazine Nature and Britannica?  That's where the dispute lies.  Nature conducted a comparative study of accuracy using 50 topics from the venerable encyclopedia and from Wikipedia.  Materials were sent to subject experts who compared each entry for accuracy.  Nature's experts were anonymous, although some have waived that anonymity and are identified on documents at the Nature web site.

The general conclusion was that Britannica was only marginally better than Wikipedia when it came to reliability.  The Nature article was published on December 15, 2005.  Now comes Britannica storming back with accusations that the study Nature conducted was fatally flawed.  These flaws range from taking articles out of the 1998 yearbook or sending condensed versions or excerpts of lengthier articles.  Britannica claims that some of the material attributed to its publication did not, in fact, appear in the Encyclopedia at all.  Nature stands by its reporting in spite of this criticism, and has released a document with edited comparisons made by experts. 

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has wisely stayed out of the fray.  His online publication has had its own share of negative publicity with some entries being pranked and politicians writing sanitized revisionist histories of themselves.  Articles in the press suggest that the online encyclopedia may be taking a somewhat harder editorial stance in light of these occurrences by freezing an article as stable until a parallel live version becomes better.  The problem with any commentary on the Internet has always been the reputation of the source,  and the communal mind of the Wikipedia contributors is not immune to this nag.

The Nature article does note that of over 1,000 Nature authors, 70% had heard of Wikipedia, 17% had consulted it on a weekly basis, but less than 10% had helped to update it.  The implication from these figures is that "experts" know about Wikipedia, but do not care enough about it to share expertise.  A more interesting study would be to measure formal citations to both publications.  While that may not measure accuracy, it may show which publication is taken more seriously by students and scholars.  If accuracy is not at stake, surely the perception of accuracy is.

The Nature article and supporting documents are here.  The Britannica response is here.  As of this writing, there are no lawsuits.  However, cases have been filed over less.

Stories are in the Boston Globe, the Times Online (London), CBS News, The Register, and the AP via USA Today.

March 25, 2006 | Permalink


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