Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica

25 07 2007

Encyclopedia
Javipas reported on Slashdot that there is a Wikipedia post that points out the errors in Encyclopedia Britannica. Imagine all of those student book reports that had information so clearly defined as fact from the source proven wrong by Wikipedia by using The Wisdom of Crowds.

Blown to Bits

Let’s step back a bit…way before Wikis, and even before the Internet caught on. Britannica was a huge multi-volume set that guys would come to your door to sell you a set for a lot of money. If you’ve ever read Blown to Bits, you’ll see that Britannica was decimated by a simple, yet new invention: the CD. Microsoft Encarta, equipped with some good old public domain material and the CD brought down an empire.

This is a common phenomenon in the tech world: someone comes up with a concept, someone else does it better. Amazon wasn’t the first place to sell books online. Google certainly wasn’t the first search engine.

Wikipedia

Hats off to Wikipedia. They showed the world, but what’s in store for them next? Wikipedia almost grays into the realm of Social News. Sure, Wikipedia is more official and in depth, but how different is it really from the Diggs and Netscapes out there?

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21 responses

25 07 2007
Top Posts « WordPress.com

[…] Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica [image] Javipas reported on Slashdot that there is a Wikipedia post that […]

25 07 2007
Dan

I would like to know how many errors and/or omissions the team responsible for the Encyclopedia Britannica might find through browsing Wikipedia. Personally, I am in favor of an accurate free encyclopedia (saves money for ice cream), but I doubt that “The Wisdom of Crowds” is as accurate as the wisdom of professionals, academics, and so on. Not to mention that EB probably covers considerably more information than Wikipedia.

26 07 2007
romane

As a matter of fact, if we balance Wikipedia errors and EB ones I guess their number is much much higher than for Encyclopedia Britannica (so scarce … in fact)
I have no idea how Wiki is structured and how they correct or impose or modify an article. Wikipedia is good to learn about the street in front of the corner of the shop of your neighbour. However, the intelligent people method is always to have different source, ins’t it ?

XXX

26 07 2007
Barb

Hi;

Quite frankly I was raised on ” World Book ” and it was a great resource
for me.

b.w.m

26 07 2007
Partho

The problem with most commentators (that I have read so far) seems that they are comparing the Web Based Wiki with the printed EB.
Surely the debate should centre around the credibility of the authors and not the medium.
The old one about a million monkeys on typewriters churning out Shakespeare sonnets.

26 07 2007
jdavey

Send this posting to Andrew Keen!

26 07 2007
brian

@Wordpress: thanks for putting me on the top posts list!

@Dan:
You have a good point. Britannica would probably find a great deal of errors and omissions in Wikipedia, but Wikipedia takes great effort to patrol their site. You’d be surprised by the number of articles that are subject to review and cleanup every day. I also highly doubt that Britannica would be interested in cleaning up a competitor’s site. Wikipedia doesn’t consider Britannica as a competitor as it has evolved into a free medium beyond the encyclopedia.

To your Wisdom of Crowds point, you’ve got to consider that the people involved are, in fact, subject matter experts at times, so you may very well be talking about professors and the like. I’ve also seen grade school students know more about history than adults, so who are we to say? 🙂

Lastly, you mention that EB probably covers considerably more information than Wikipedia. To be fair, I analyzed the number of internal pages indexed on Google for Wikipedia’s English pages vs. Britannica, and here’s what I came up with:
Wikipedia (EN): 3,210,000
Britannica: 2,690,000

It’s pretty close, but Wikipedia is the winner.

@romane: Not knowing how a Wiki is structured does not mean that it is an inaccurate tool. Wiki is only the technology with which to serve up the articles, so it isn’t really fair to say that it’s what is inaccurate. Also, are you implying that Wikipedia is only good for local information? I think you’ll see it differently if you search for other information. For example, the Oceanic Whitetip Shark: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oceanic_whitetip_shark

26 07 2007
brian

@Barb: I hear you. Those were better days. No spam 🙂

26 07 2007
brian

@Partho: correct. Wiki vs. EB print version is a stupid conversation. I would add one thing to your comment. Not only must we analyze the authors, but also look at the editor’s credentials and abilities as well.

26 07 2007
brian

@jdavey: Nice one. Maybe I’ll appeal to him by pointing him to his Wiki 🙂
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Keen

26 07 2007
Lilian Cheong

I like Wiki because it is so easy to use on the spur of the moment. I write weekly mail to my son’s class and I use Wike for information and also to validate some of me claims. Thanks to Wiki.

26 07 2007
Steve

I agree with Partho that comparing a constantly updated web site with a written work is not apples to apples, and I applaud Brian for doing a more accurate comparison. Another consideration is their application: most search a wiki for what ‘may’ be factual – or a reasonable facsimile (and to be fair, is likely so), while most search a “reference book” including EB for what is (stated by academia as) factual.

I feel compelled to add to Brian’s Wisdom of Crowds point by that, while some reviewers and editors of Wikis are professional, many are not. In fact a talk show deliberately added mis-truths to a popular Wiki to prove this. In their defense the wiki learned of it and corrected it – they had to. Their reputation was at stake in the public arena. But what about instances of error that aren’t publicized on TV shows? Yes, some are caught, but they can’t all be caught – I mean how much importance is placed on catching errors. I doubt a wiki reviewer/ editor would be concerned about losing his/her livelihood based on an error in the material, at least not as much as editor of a written publication.

Another point is the unmade comparison of the Wisdom of the Crowds to the Wisdom of the Ages. Although its true that the victors write the history books, nothing dispels error like time. And what may be factual in the written tomes of today is revealed as not in written tomes of tomorrow – but only after careful (read: time consuming) review. In the Internet world of the wiki, what may be factual this minute, may be revealed as not in the next minute, and may be revealed as fact again in the next minute, ad infinitum.

I use both, and feel they both have their place in research. If I need to check something quickly, and the veracity is not essential , I’ll use a wiki – especially, Wikipedia.com. But if I need an absolute indisputable answer, I’ll look into an ‘established’ reference such as an encyclopedia or perhaps a textbook (even though I know textbooks are often slanted, as well) – especially in matter of medicine or law. As far as I know, no one routinely and successfully uses a wiki to aid in the diagnosis of illnesses or in their defense in court, while the same cannot be said of the written word. Even though technology is changing quickly and the wikis have their place, they haven’t (yet) reached the status of an ‘established reference’.

26 07 2007
Luli

Since Wiki has elements of blog, it should not be called or refer to itself as an encyclopedia. It’s deceiving many (the proof is above) into believing it’s a credible and accurate account. This is how history gets rewritten, our true heritage gets lost, and we get pushed in the intellectual direction that the elite want the masses to travel in to satisfy their cause. Now, everyone – find your grain of salt and don’t leave home without it!

26 07 2007
brian

@Lilian: glad to hear that you like Wiki’s ease of use. It’s one of the best things it has going for them. And yes, you can use it to validate your claims.

@Luli: While a Wiki is similar to a blog, I wouldn’t call a Wiki a blog. Wikipedia is only one such site that uses Wiki technology – it’s just that it’s one of the best known ones.

As far as rewriting history goes: well, I suppose that it could lead to that, but I again stress that Wikipedia has a series of sysadmins, content contributors and group leaders that are in place to make sure that something like that does not occur. You can’t just post or modify anything at will. Sure, maybe you could change something on an unpopular (meaning not a lot of traffic to it) topic, but eventually it would get modified. If you tried to modify something that was major in the news…I assure you that you’d be found out and it would be changed back. In fact, admins might even lock users out from changing the story.

26 07 2007
Ed Darrell

I love my old World Book, and I am quite fond of my old Britannica — but Wikipedia is at last as accurate on key things, more accurate on fast moving things like particle physics, string physics, cell phone technology; and often much more detailed about public policy issues and people in the public eye. Wikipedia must edit much faster, and it’s difficult to keep control so that someone doesn’t add in an insult to someone else in an article — but there is no indication in any measure that that particular degree of control makes the print (or CD, or online) versions any more accurate. I recall one of my math teachers who was perusing a Britannica volume one day during lunch — he noted that his physics Ph.D. brother and he had a lot of fun going through and finding serious errors in equations and other things. They sent off a couple of letters a week to the editors to fix . . .

I find an error in Wikipedia, I fix it, leave references, and within 24 hours the fix is either well-entrenched, or corrected itself.

We lose the idiosyncrasies of the “expert” authors. That’s a shame. Those voices were/are entertaining, and sometimes pushed us to thinking about things in different ways. But not always — sometimes they were just wrong.

Wikipedia deals with controversy much better than encyclopedias can. There’s a place for ’em all in a true scholar’s toolbox.

It’s also fun watching Wikipedia drive up the wall scholars who don’t adjust well to technology and increased demands for accuracy, like the Constructive Curmudgeon: http://theconstructivecurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2006/05/against-wikipedias-for-scholarship.html

26 07 2007
brian

@Steve: fantastic comment! I agree with you that Wikipedia information must not necessarily be taken as fact. I think that you discussion of where to look for credible information (reference, textbooks) is also on point. The amount of money that big business pays for items to be included / excluded in textbooks is impressive. I wonder if the same applies to a bound encyclopedia as well?

26 07 2007
brian

@Ed: sure, what’s not to love about the classic World Book or Brittanica? They have such a classic, innocent feel. And they are still great references. I really enjoyed your point:

…there is no indication in any measure that that particular degree of control makes the print (or CD, or online) versions any more accurate.

Very true! At least Wikipeda makes a (known) effort to try to constantly improve the quality of their information.

27 07 2007
Sutocu

Wikipedia may have more errors on its pages at any one time, but many of these are corrected in a matter of minutes (the errors due to spamming, or vandalism). I have no real knowledge of how often errors in BE are corrected, but I can guess it’s at a slower rate. This should mean that in a few years Wikipedia may be a more reliable source. If it is not already, that is.

As mentioned by Brian, many of regular Wikipedia authors are indeed graduates, or even professors of the subjects they write about. So it isn’t even true that EB’s authors would all be more reliable.

Wikipedia is a very good resource if you know how to read it. Before believing all the information you should check if the article references its sources. And if something seems weird, or wrong, check the last few edits from the page history: someone may have intentionally changed it.

Anyways, if you do use it, be sure to correct all mistakes you spot. Even grammar and spelling. That’s how it will become a better encyclopedia.

27 07 2007
brian

@Sutocu: well put! There are a number of experts out there in Wikipedia. References are also a good source of information on Wiki posts as are footnotes – and both are updated frequently.

22 10 2007
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