Encyclopedia Britannica vs Wikipedia
Which works better, paying experts to write a reference work or inviting volunteers?
Twenty years ago, no educated middle class home would have been complete without its 30-volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The books themselves would be largely unthumbed, but mere ownership of all that leather-bound knowledge gave its owners a feeling of erudite superiority.
First published in 1768, the Britannica is written by world-renowned experts in numerous fields. Rut it’s not been without its critics: the 11th edition,published in 1910, is notorious for its entry on the Ku Klux Klan, which describes the need to ‘control the negro’; fails to mention Sigmund Freud; and has no entry for Marie Curie, despite her having already won two Nobel prizes – although she is briefly referred to in her husband’s entry. How do we know all this? From Wikipedia, the upstart maverick that has so damaged Britannica’s fortunes.
With entries not by dusty professors but by people like you and us, it was clear from the outset that Wikipedia could never work. Making it editable at any time by anyone would surely mean the temptation for vandalism and malice was just too great. And yet it did work, and today it’s the most popular encyclopaedia in the world.
Now that the Britannica is available on DVD for £39.99 (currently £16.99 on Amazon), the high price tag is now only for the print edition, at £1195 (also heavily discounted by retailers). But which offers the better coverage? A DVD reference written by experts which is potentially out of date the moment it’s published, requiring an annual subscription (£49.95) for current affairs coverage? Or a free online-only resource written largely by amateurs? Let’s put the two monkeys of’ knowledge head to head and see which one climbs to the top of the information pole.
Wikipedia’s website is clean, informative and, apart from the small logo, entirely devoid of visual clutter. It loads in under a second with a fast connection, and the profusion of hyperlinks makes it easy to jump from article to article.
Britannica for Mac launches in a custom application window, with an A-Z Quick Search pane on the left side. This lists the entire contents of the encyclopaedia in alphabetical order, so on first opening the application you see ’1054, Schism of’, followed by ’12 Angry Men’ then ’12-tonemusic’ and the’16th Street Baptist Church Bombing’. It’s a truly bizarre way to present information.
Searching in Britannica is a little slow,even if the entire DVD content is copied to your hard drive: it takes a while for the software to switch focus from the Search field to the results, leaving you clicking unsuccessfully for a couple of seconds. There are enough hyperlinks in the text to provide background information on mentioned topics, and browser-like Back and Forward buttons prevent you losing your place.
On opening Britannica, you’re given the choice of browsing the full Britannica Library, the Britannica Student Library (aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds) or the Britannica Elementary Library, for younger children. The Elementary Library sports a cheery, colourful interface, with large, clear text; written in straightforward language, it provides the information kids will need without swamping them with detail.
The Britannica DVD includes dictionaries, an atlas, a timeline, and a ‘brainstorming’ view whereby you follow trees of ideas until you arrive at the concept that interestsyou. It also allows users to make notes and add bookmarks to articles, which is handy.
How can a product burned onto a DVD possibly compete with one that’s updated by the minute as soon as events occur? To test both encyclopaedias, we looked up the entry for Nick Clegg. The 2011 DVD of Britannica didn’t fare too well, describing him as a ‘British politician who became leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007. This is the 2011 edition, note, so we’d expect it to include events such as his becoming Deputy Prime Minister in May 2010.
A View Updated Article button leads to the online update, which does cover his current cabinet post, although it includes phrases such as ‘Clegg and Cameron seemed to develop an easy rapport’, which could really do with updating. We’re told that the Alternative Vote proposal was ‘soundly defeated’at a referendum, but no figures are given. The entire article runs to 800 words, and includes a single photograph.
The Wikipedia entry covers Clegg’s history, political life,career and stance on topics such as tuition fees. There’s a wealth of information that gives us real insight into the man, such as his Desert Island Discs choices and the fact that his three children all have Spanish names. The article has been edited 50 times in the last month, and runs to 7,500 words. It includes seven photographs of Clegg, with another 30 available in the associated Wikimedia Commons: almost all the photographs of Clegg are in the public domain, so readers can use them freely.
We did spot one mistake in the Clegg entry: a simple misplaced apostrophe. Because articles on current politicians are sensitive and open to vandalism, we weren’t allowed to edit the entry directly; but after we submitted an edit request, the change was duly made on the page the same morning.
Level of detail
Wikipedia is justly proud of the thoroughness of its entries. But sometimes you can be overwhelmed with information. We looked up radio-carbon dating, just to get an overview of what the process is all about. Wikipedia’s 3,000 word article covers the technique in exhaustive detail; even the first paragraph talks about isotope fractionation and radiometric dating, explaining how the ’14C fraction of this organic material declines at a fixed exponential rate’ before going on to discuss speleothem studies and liquid scintillation counting, helpfully pointing out that
It’s a severe case of information overload. Britannica’s 240-word article, by contrast, explains what radio-carbon dating is all about in a manner that’s concise, comprehensible and memorable. Interestingly, the Student Library fills out the subject more than the full version, with 689 words that explain why the process is important, how it’s used and which other dating methods arc available.
Wikipedia isn’t always the more exhaustive. An entry on fascism in Britannica yielded nearly 16,500 words, compared to 12,260 in Wikipedia. But where Wikipedia cited 282 sources, all with hyperlinks, Britannica’s lengthy further reading list was not in hypertext format, although it did include the mention of a book by the article’s author under ‘Important studies of French fascism’.
Comprehensive though Britannica may be, it struggles to get with the Zeitgeist. Look up Ryan Giggs and you’ll find no mention of him, either on the DVD or online; Wikipedia’s coverage is extensive, including full details of the recent gagging order. Try to find out about the TV series Dexter, the film Avatar or the website Chatroulette, and Britannica will draw a blank.
Given the nature of the internet, it’s not surprising that science fiction ENCYCLOPEDIAS in particular, is well served on Wikipedia. Look up Doctor Who in Britannica, and you get a 283-word article that cover the basics. In Wikipedia, the main article runs to 12,500words, with additional links to episode guides, recurring characters, spin-off books, fan clubs, films, spoofs, cultural references, merchandise, exhibitions, and such arcane trivia as the fact that Matt Smith turned on the Christmas lights in Cardiff in 2010 using a sonic screwdriver.
Yet Britannica does provide information on subjects that matter. You’ll be able to read a potted history of the iPhone (487 words, as opposed to nearly 10,000 in the main Wikipedia article), and the entry on Twitter docs discuss how important it became as a means for disseminating information during the 2009 presidential elections in Iran.
Editorial control and bias
One of the criticisms levelled at Wikipedia that allowing anyone to edit just about anything lays it open to malicious abuse. In addition, since articles can be and are often written by parties with a financial interest in the subject, impartiality can’t be guaranteed or so we’re led to believe. In practice, the self-policing nature of the Wiki system means inaccuracies, hyperbole, blatant self-promotion and speculation usually get ironed out pretty fast.
It’s also claimed that since much of Wikipedia is written by enthusiasts rather than experts and since we don’t know which is which when we’re reading an article we can never really trust what we read. In some areas, this may well be true: articles on contentious issues such as the Blu-ray format and software piracy may attract amendments from contributors who are biased one way or the other. But if you want to know about photosynthesis in plants, or the career and filmography of Frank Capra, or release date of each Pink Floyd album, or any of a million less volatile subjects, you’re likely to find Wikipedia’s coverage is comprehensive, authoritative and impartial.
Britannica’s main selling point is that it’s written entirely by experts and has no social or political bias. It even includes a 1000 word entry on Wikipedia (as compared to Wikipedia’s 10,000 word entry on Britannica). But the Britannica entry comments: ‘A troubling difference between Wikipedia and other encyclopaedias lies in the absence of editors and authors who will accept responsibility for the accuracy and quality of their articles.’ That’s somewhat disingenuous: Wikipedia does, indeed, have a wide array of editors; the only charge of amateurism would lie in the fact that all of them work for nothing in their spare time.
Interestingly, a Far more detailed and thorough analysis of the potential fallibility of the Wiki system appears in the ‘Wikipedia’ entry to be found in, er, Wikipedia.
With its elegance, ease of use, comprehensive coverage and currency of information, there’s no doubt that Wikipedia has the edge in many respects. Its reliance on an active internet connection means it can’t easily be used when travelling; but thanks to the open nature of its data, third-party offline readers are available. The charge most often levelled against it is that it covers popular culture in too much detail. But Wikipedia is written by, and for, those for whom this is of particular interest.
Where Britannica scores highly is in the conciseness and accuracy of its articles. The libraries specifically for students and children are admirable, presenting pared-down information with clarity and authority. As an aid to homework and study, it’s probably of more direct benefit than Wikipedia. But if this is the market it’s trying to attract and kids are, after all, the Britannica buyers of the future then its refusal to engage with contemporary culture will only frustrate them, forcing them to turn to online sources for information that’s relevant to their lives.
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