Earlier this year, the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica reached out to the online community by offering bloggers additional access to their materials in a program called Britannica Webshare. This was, in my opinion, an exciting opportunity (as well as a smart business move on the part of Britannica) and I was one of the many bloggers that has taken advantage of the offer.
Britannica's announcement said:
The purpose of the program is to make Britannica reference material generally available to the people on the Internet whose work and missions have a close affinity with Britannica's -- that is, publishers who engage in discussions and conversations about the great range of topics and issues of interest to people today.
This move was clearly in response to the continued growing popularity and use of Wikipedia, the multilingual free-content collaboratively-built online encyclopedia. A common criticism of Wikipedia has been about the "inaccuracy" of information found there. However, there have been a few studies comparing Wikipedia information to Britannica that have surprised Wikipedia critics -- as well as Britannica fans.
In December 2005, Nature released a study (subscription required) comparing Britannica and Wikipedia. Reported by CNET in their article, "Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica", the study involved peer review, giving experts sets of two articles -- one from each provider -- and asking them to check the articles for accuracy.
In the end, the journal found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. They did, however, discover a series of factual errors, omissions or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123. ...That averages out to 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.
So here we have further evidence that there is room for error in all publications, online or not. Perfection does not exist.
Since the report was released, Wikipedia has taken a number of positive steps to help develop and maintain the accuracy and objectivity of Wikipedia entries. It's important to note that Wikipedia articles are in a state of constant flux and there is the potential for vandalization. Wikipedia has also had a rule against using original research that some claim discourages participation by scholars and experts. However, those same scholars and experts are able to participate in the writing of articles and linking to supporting documents on the web.
While Britannica's model does not have all of the same challenges as Wikipedia, it does share some. The TechDIrt blog went on to made another interesting observation in their May 16 post "HMS Britannic Optimistic About Deck-Chair Re-Arrangement":
...The fundamental problem is simply a matter of manpower. Wikipedia has tens of thousands of volunteer editors who collectively donate millions of hours of labor to the project. There's simply no way that a commercial encyclopedia edited in a traditional, hierarchical fashion, can compete with that. Britannica has to pay its editors, while Wikipedia gets its editors for free. Britannica likes to emphasize that its articles are written by credentialed experts. But this misses the point in a couple of ways. In the first place, while experts aren't given formal authority on Wikipedia, there are plenty of subject matter experts contributing to Wikipedia articles. More importantly, Wikipedia's editing process is based not on the authority of any one expert, but by citing reliable sources that anyone can check to verify the accuracy of the information. This kind of distributed peer review has allowed Wikipedia to produce a lot more content, with roughly the same accuracy, without hiring professional editors. There's just no way that a traditionally-organized commercial encyclopedia can keep up.
Britannica President Jorge Cauz was interviewed by the TechDirt Blog on May 29 to respond to some of the concerns expressed by TechDirt and others about the relevancy of Britannica's business and information models. Then, on June 3, Britannica announced major changes to its online service: Britannica Online is moving towards the direction of the collaborative model of Wikipedia. Cauz commented further on this shift in his CEO blog entry that day, "Collaboration and the Voices of Experts".
It will be very interesting to see the way that Britannica and Wikipedia continue to develop their organizational and informational models. They are both approaching the work of producing an online encyclopedia, albeit with different -- some might say competing -- methodologies. In addition, Wikipedia's volunteers continue to rapidly expand the materials offered on Wikipedia in many languages.
[UPDATE: On June 13, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales titled "Wikipedia's Co-Founder Wants to Make It More Useful to Academe" (subscription required), where he discussed proposed changes in Wikipedia that he hopes will make the site more useful for colleges and universities.]
Will there eventually be a clear "winner" or is there room for both? What is the purpose of an online encyclopedia? Should the product be the result only of work by pre-approved experts? Or do the contributions of an online community of individuals with the interest in or knowledge of a particular subject make such a work richer and stronger? What are the implications of using a variety of languages in producing such a work?
Finally, which one do you use and/or prefer? Why?