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Business - Written by on Tuesday, January 27, 2009 13:45 - 1 Comment

Derek Pokora
Britannica loosens up (somewhat) while Wikipedia tightens the reins. Apparently there is such a thing as a happy medium!

It has been three years since the notorious Nature magazine article evaluated the difference in error rates between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, and that battle still continues today.

On January 22, 2009, Encyclopaedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz announced that they will be releasing new features on Britannica.com that empower users to contribute and edit content. However, all submissions will undergo a strict vetting process, and may not make the cut. As Cauz reported to the New York Times, “We’re not trying to be a wiki – that’s the last thing we want to be.”

Now why would a 240 year old steadfast institution suddenly make such a drastic change in its approach? The answer: the bottom line. Let’s compare web traffic:

Wikipedia vs. Britannica: Compete.com

Britannica’s Web 2.0 approach isn’t exactly brand new. Back in July of 2008, Britannica launched a new version of its web site that was more interactive and full of new media resources. Members of the community were given an online home allowing them to promote their work and services, publish and share the work that they create outside of the encyclopaedia, and interact with others in the community. The site even features a ‘reward system’ to motivate users to contribute.

I see the reiteration of these ‘new features’ as a marketing ploy to retort Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales’ proposal to review revisions by new and anonymous users before posting them to Wikipedia. This editing change comes after vandals edited the pages of Senators Robert Byrd and Edward (Ted) Kennedy, erroneously stating that both had died. As if Senator Kennedy’s seizure during Obama’s post-inaugural luncheon wasn’t unfortunate enough!

Vandals described both Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy as deceased.

Wales’ proposed new system, called Flagged Revisions, would mark a significant change in the ethos of Wikipedia, which in eight years of existence has become one of the top 10 sites on the Web and the de facto information source for the Internet-using public. Used by German Wikipedia since last May, flagged revisions provides only ‘reliable users’ with the liberty to have their material appear immediately to the general public. Other contributors can edit articles, but their changes will be held until registered, reliable users have signed off on them.

Due to a massive backlash from editors stating that the proposal is unfeasible and unmanageable, Wales is offering a compromise, asking those opposed to the changes make an alternative proposal within the next seven days, to be voted upon 14 days after that.

The convergence of the two processes is, in my opinion, long overdue. Regardless of whether or not the Nature article back in 2005 has been debunked or not is somewhat irrelevant. The point remains – everyone makes mistakes, be they accidental or intentional.

As first quoted by Alexander Pope in An Essay on Criticism, and later expanded upon by the Farmers’ Almanac in 1978, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer. The fact that both knowledge bases have come to their senses and have realized that a screening process is necessary is vital to the accuracy of both publications.

The convergence of these processes will hopefully also result in the convergence of error rates. However, if this does occur, and Wikipedia and Britannica will hold the same veracity, why exactly then would I pay to read one over the other? Besides, isn’t researching an encyclopaedia simply a secondary point of research to start from? If I really care about a topic, I’ll continue researching from different sources, both primary and secondary. Britannica’s attempt at finally jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon may provide them with a few more page views for now, but I highly doubt that it will be it’s saving grace.

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Wikipedia’s Credibility « Sheri’s Blog
Dec 16, 2009 16:49

[...] be considered erroneous (although the difference in web traffic is tremendous, according to this Wikinomics blog entry). But the beauty of Wikipedia lays in its open source software…making it a living [...]

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