Britannica versus Wikipedia

In our article The Internet – a sober corrective to unruly journalists, Andrew Lih, author of the “Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia,” noted how a survey finding showing that scientists had much more faith in the accuracy of Wikipedia than the mainstream media reminded him of a Nature study in 2005 which “found that on average, Britannica had 3 errors per article, and Wikipedia had 4 errors.”

Not so fast, responds the Encyclopedia Britannica”s Tom Panelas, who points us towards a brace of articles refuting this study (which was not peer-reviewed), including Britannica’s point-by-point refutation, and Nicholas Carr’s criticism

“If you were to state the conclusion of the Nature survey accurately, then, the most you could say is something like this: ‘If you only look at scientific topics, if you ignore the structure and clarity of the writing, and if you treat all inaccuracies as equivalent, then you would still find that Wikipedia has about 32% more errors and omissions than Encyclopedia Britannica.’ That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.”

(Carr later joined Britannica’s editorial board). The article’s focus was on the significance of scientists choosing new media entities that reflected consensus within expert communities rather than old media entities driven by “news.” In that respect, both WebMD and Wikipedia represent a return to a more 19th century model of knowledge, but by different paths: WebMD relies on expert guidance before publication, Wikipedia (at least in theory) on expert guidance or intervention after publication. The Encyclopedia Britannica is in this respect, the ultimate old media and new media resource.

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6 Responses to Britannica versus Wikipedia

  1. S Stevens says:

    Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

    Over the next year or so we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

  2. Luk Arbuckle says:

    “If you were to state the conclusion of the Nature survey accurately”, wouldn’t you quote “natural frequencies”? That, “on average, Britannica had 3 errors per article, and Wikipedia had 4 errors” is far more clear and informative than a relative frequency (I believe it speaks well of an author and source to quote natural frequencies). And regardless, this is missing the point: wikipedia is nearing the accuracy of the supposed “gold standard” (Britannica), and that the “gold standard” has errors as well.

  3. logicmantra says:

    Wikipedia will win hands down. Power of democratic web.

  4. Wilson says:

    A free Wikipedia vs a paid Britannica. That is really the way it should be. We the people are the winners.

    Britannica should adapt and match Wikipedia otherwise they must shut down and die. Knowledge should be free.

    • lohi says:

      you don’t pay for knowledge; you pay for the work of people who put enormous effort to edit a reliable source of knowledge. wikipedia is free, but it takes no responsibility for the accuracy.

  5. Well says:

    “Wikipedia has about 32% more errors and omissions than Encyclopedia Britannica.”

    You get what you pay for. Like comparing blogs with real news sources. I’ll gladly pay for the real thing. And I am not alone.

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