Open Access and its Errant Competitores: How Britannica and Wikipedia Match-Up

What is the true worth and credibility of the information found in Wikipedia? A 2005 Nature article entitled “Internet Encyclopaedias go Head to Head”1 details a Nature investigation that used peer review to determine the comparative credibility of Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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.

Encyclopaedia Britannica’s reputation precedes it as the finest printed general encyclopedia that money can buy. However, as anyone who has ever worked in reference publishing knows, reputations can be better than the product you are hawking.

In 2005, twelve year old Lucian George found 5 errors on the subjects of wildlife and central Europe in Encyclopaedia Britannica.2 Traditional closed access publishing has always fought off the open access movement by arguing that proprietary content is the gold standard for quality and reliability.

However, it would seem that paid resources are more like the silver standard. The unquestioning assumption that many of the staples of the reference and research collection are inerrant is wrong. Humans put these things together and humans make mistakes.

  1. Giles, Jim. “Internet Encyclopaedias go Head to Head.” Nature 438, no. 7070 (December 15, 2005): 900-901. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/438900a.
  2. Parkinson, Justin “Boy Brings Encyclopaedia to Book.” BBC , January 26, 2005: Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4209575.stm (Accessed December 1, 2009).

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).