another round: britannica versus wikipedia 03.31.2006, 4:38 PM
posted by ray cha
The Encyclopedia Britannica versus Wikipedia saga continues. As Ben has recently posted, Britannica has been confronting Nature on its article which found that the two encyclopedias were fairly equal in the accuracy of their science articles. Today, the editors and the board of directors of Encyclopedia Britannica, have taken out a half page ad in today New York Times (A19) to present an open letter to Nature which requests for a public reaction of the article.
Several interesting things are going on here. Because Britannica chose to place an ad in the Times, it shifted the argument and debate away from the peer review / editorial context into one of rhetoric and public relations. Further, their conscious move to take the argument to the "public" or the "masses" with an open letter is ironic because the New York TImes does not display its print ads online, therefore access of the letter is limited to the Time's print readership. (Not to mention, the letter is addressed to the Nature Publishing Group located in London. If anyone knows that a similar letter was printed in the UK, please let us know.) Readers here can click on the thumbnail image to read the entire text of the letter. Ben raised an interesting question here today, asking where one might post a similar open letter on the Internet.
Britannica cites many important criticisms of Nature's article, including: using text not from Britannica, using excerpts out of context, giving equal weight to minor and major errors, and writing a misleading headline. If their accusations are true, then Nature should redo the study. However, to harp upon Nature's methods is to miss the point. Britannica cannot do anything to stop Wikipedia, except to try to discredit to this study. Disproving Nature's methodology will have a limited effect on the growth of Wikipedia. People do not mind that Wikipedia is not perfect. The JKF assassination / Seigenthaler episode showed that. Britannica's efforts will only lead to more studies, which will inevitably will show errors in both encyclopedias. They acknowledge in today's letter that, "Britannica has never claimed to be error-free." Therefore, they are undermining their own authority, as people who never thought about the accuracy of Britannica are doing just that now. Perhaps, people will not mind that Britannica contains errors as well. In their determination to show the world that of the two encyclopedias which both content flaws, they are also advertising that of the two, the free one has some-what more errors.
In the end, I agree with Ben's previous post that the Nature article in question has a marginal relevance to the bigger picture. The main point is that Wikipedia works amazingly well and contains articles that Britannica never will. It is a revolutionary way to collaboratively share knowledge. That we should give consideration to the source of our information we encounter, be it the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, Nature or the New York Time, is nothing new.
ben vershbow on March 31, 2006 11:29 PM:
Wholeheartedly agree. The funny thing about trying to gatekeep Wikipedia is that it has already sort of blown through the gate. Or driven around it. It is in a different space entirely.
Ry Rivard on April 3, 2006 11:36 AM:
Nature responds unhelpfully, admitting "Our reviewers may have made some mistakes -- we have been open about our methodology and never claimed otherwise -- but the entries they reviewed were blinded: they did not know which entry came from Wikipedia and which from Britannica."
Also, the article notes a half-page add did appear in England, in their Times.