Tell Me Again, Which is Suppose to be Better?: Wikipedia Vs. Bound Encyclopedias

The odds that an adult will use Wikipedia on any single day are 1 in 13.1 In full disclosure, I am one of the people who use Wikipedia on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the last time I opened a bound copy of an encyclopedia. This raises the question, how does the “new age” electronic Wikipedia compare to its “traditional” hard copy competitors? For the purposes of this article, one competitor will do: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

First published in 1768 in Edinburgh Scotland, Encyclopaedia Britannica is the oldest English general encyclopedia in the world. New technologies of the last twenty years have had a profound impact on the 240 year old encyclopedia. The household adoption of the CD and DVD format in the 1990’s allowed Microsoft to challenge Encylopaedia Britannica on both price and ease of access with Encarta. In the 2000’s, the ubiquitousness of the Internet allowed for another challenger to this old guard encyclopedia publisher–Wikipedia.

It costs real money to make a high quality product. The printed unabridged 15th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica consists of 32 volumes with 60,000 articles and costs $1,400 retail (in bound form).2 Wikipedia costs nothing. With a total of three million articles (as of August 2009), the English version of Wikipedia offers, for free, almost fifty times as much content as the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Wikipedia, as an open access resource, is possible because of every single person and no single person. Wikipedia has about 85,000 active contributors. A large number that dwarfs the editorial team of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but when compared to Wikipedia’s user base it is an infinitesimal number. This number is equal to roughly .001 percent of Wikipedia’s 65 million monthly visitors being contributors.3

Encyclopaedia Britannica has 4,000 scholarly contributors, an editorial staff of 13, and an Editorial Board of Advisors consisting of 12 distinguished scholars.4 Compared to Wikipedia, this is a small number, but it is a number consisting entirely of subject experts. Wikipedia’s contributors are generally non-experts, 87% male, and of the average age of 27.5

Wikipedia’s male dominated contributors update the encyclopedia weekly, hourly, by the minute, and even by the second. Not every article is constantly updated, but its instantaneous nature allows Wikipedia and its articles to quickly adapt. Encyclopaedia Britannica is on its 15th edition (completed in 1974 at a cost of 32 million dollars). Updated on an ongoing basis, roughly 10% of its articles are revised each year.6

Two encyclopedias and two fundamentally different approaches to building an encyclopedia, but the ultimate factor is accuracy. How do each compare in terms of getting the facts right? In 1994, Kenneth Kister performed a quantitative and qualitative comparison of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and Encyclopedia Americana. In terms of accuracy, Encyclopaedia Britannica received an average score of 92%, Encyclopedia Americana 95% and Collier’s Encyclopedia 92%. For numerous reasons, Kister selected the now no longer published Collier’s as the best of the three. 7

In 2005, twelve-year-old Lucian George found 5 errors on the subjects of wildlife and central Europe in Encyclopaedia Britannica.8 That same year, a Nature article entitled “Internet Encyclopaedias go Head to Head” detailed a Nature investigation that used peer review to determine the comparative credibility of Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica. 9 Forty-two topics were reviewed in both encyclopedias for errors by subject experts. Wikipedia articles had an average of four errors per article compared to Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had an average of three errors per article.

In terms of accuracy there are no perfect encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s accuracy closely trails that of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its timeliness is unrivaled, its scope, while inconsistent in article length, is exponential to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s. Britannica may be better for certain subjects, Wikipedia may be better for other subjects, but on the whole there is substantial evidence that one may be no better than the other, and one no worse than the other.

  1. Book of Odds. http://www.bookofodds.com/Daily-Life-Activities/Entertainment-Media/Odds/The-odds-an-adult-who-uses-the-internet-uses-Wikipedia-to-look-for-information-in-a-day-are-1-in-12.5-US-2-2007-3-2007 (accessed December 15, 2009).
  2. “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/186618/Encyclopaedia-Britannica (accessed December 11, 2009).
  3. “Wikipedia: About.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About (accessed December 15, 2009).
  4. “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica (accessed December 1, 2009).
  5. Angwin, Julia, and Geoffrey Fowler. “Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages.” Wall Street Journal. http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.mckendree.edu/pqdweb?index=0&did=1906142831&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1260856581&clientId=15374 (accessed December 15, 2009).
  6. “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica (accessed December 1, 2009).
  7. Kister, K. (1994). Kister’s Best Encyclopedias: A Comparative Guide to General and Specialized Encyclopedias. Phoenix: Oryx Press.
  8. Parkinson, Justin. Boy Brings Encyclopaedia to Book. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4209575.stm.
  9. Giles, Jim. “Internet Encyclopaedias go Head to Head.” Nature 438, no. 7070 (December 15, 2005): 900-901. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/438900a.

Correcting Academia on Why Wikipedia Should Not be Used

Professors purse their lips with disgust when they are forced to utter the term Wikipedia.  Almost uniformly denounced by academia, when a college student says he has used Wikipedia, the term is immediately followed by the rejoinder “I know I shouldn’t use it, but…”.

Wikipedia is like porn: everyone publicly denounces it, while still secretly enjoying it.  With a permanent asterisk tattooed across its content, Wikipedia is treated as damaged goods.  Yet, just like the adult entertainment industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that no one approves of, Wikipedia is one of the top ten visited (and used) websites annually, beating out the other 233 million websites on the web.1

Professors and librarians should not denounce Wikipedia for being Wikipedia, but for being a general encyclopedia. In a 2005 interview, the founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales was asked if he thought people should cite Wikipedia. His response was:

No, I don’t think people should cite it, and I don’t think people should cite Britannica, either — the error rate there isn’t very good. People shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level. And really, it’s more reliable to read Wikipedia for background than to read random Web pages on the Internet.2

General encyclopedias are great resources for a quick fact or a basic overview. The correct argument is that general encyclopedias should never be cited in a scholarly bibliography, whether it is Wikipedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  1. “November 2009 Web Server Survey.” Netcraft . Available at: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html (Accessed December 12, 2009).
  2. Burt, H., “Wikipedia: ‘A Work in Progress.'”  Available at: http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/dec2005/tc20051214_441708.htm (Accessed December 11, 2009).