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The Wikipedia vs Britannica Case

Page history last edited by Eleni Konstantinou 13 years, 3 months ago


The Wikipedia versus Britannica case is one  of the most known debates started in December of 2005 from the Nature report. The aim of the report was to examine the quality of information provided from Wikipedia which was the first collectively created encyclopedia.



Wikipedia is a free, multilingual, open content encyclopedia project operated by the United States-based non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. It was launched in 2001 and it has grown to the most popular general reference work on the Internet. Wikipedia’s articles are written collaboratively by volunteers around the world.



On the other hand, Britannica adheres to a traditional publishing process. It has about 4,800 contributors and advisors and about 100 editors in-house as compared with Wikipedia’s couple of thousand core community members. These people are selected in the classic manner: They are carefully vetted and chosen based on their qualifications for the job. Articles are developed for publication and put through editorial review.



The Nature Comparison

Nature magazine compared articles of Wikipedia and Britannica in order to find errors in both encyclopedias. This survey was conducted by giving articles to reviewers who were highly qualified in the area described by each entry. Fifty entries were chosen by both encyclopedias with approximately the same length. Each pair of entries was sent to the relevant expert for peer review. The reviewers did not know which article came from which encyclopedia and were asked to find three types of inaccuracy: factual errors, critical omissions and misleading statements. 42 usable reviews were returned. The reviews were then examined by Nature's news team and the total number of errors estimated for each article.



Nature's news team sometimes disregarded items that the reviewers had identified as errors or critical omissions. As Nature reports, they were interested in testing the entries from the point of view of ‘typical encyclopaedia users', so they felt that experts in the field might sometimes cite omissions as critical when in fact they probably weren't – at least for a general understanding of the topic. Likewise, the 'errors' identified sometimes strayed into merely being badly phrased – so were ignored unless they significantly hindered understanding.



Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.



Britannica answered to Nature’s study claiming that the investigation was misleading as the criteria used to compare the two encyclopedias were wrong and misleading. After requesting the reviewers’ comments on the Britannica articles, Britannica responded to the errors pointed out by the reviewers, justifying why they did not accept them. Nature answered back to Britannica’s complains about reviewers’ bias about their articles and concluded that : “But there is a more important point here than arguing over individual errors. Our reviewers probably did make 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. So their honest errors will have affected Wikipedia’s error count just as much as Britannica’s. The aim of our study was to compare the two reference sources in a fair test. Unless there was deliberate bias on behalf of our 42 reviewers, and we find it hard to believe that was the case, individual mistakes will have averaged out, and the overall results will stand.”




Wikipedia’s material is licensed under GFDL, GNU Free Documentation License, and is provided by volunteers that either produced the material or acquired the material from a source that allows the licensing under GFDL. In the first case, the contributor holds the copyright to the material and can later republish and relicense in any way. However, the contributor can never retract the GFDL license for the copies of the material that placed in Wikipedia. These copies will remain under GFDL until they enter the public domain. In the second case, the material can be in the public domain or itself published under GFDL. In this case, the contributor needs to acknowledge the authorship and provide a link back to the network location of the original copy.



Britannica mentions in the terms of use that the content is property of Britannica and is protected by copyright, patent or trademark laws. It allows users to display, reproduce, print or download content only for personal, non-commercial user.




Wikipedia’s material is gathered by several contributors, that allows the peer-review of the material but also might contain inaccuracies. However, the Wikipedia model is more flexible to error correction, in comparison with classic encyclopedias. This could be a reason why in the survey conducted by Nature, Wikipedia’s error count did not differ significantly for Britannica’s error count.



The case of Wikipedia and Britannica shows how the two different licensing options copyright and copyleft can be applied in practice. The cases further shows that a copyleft approach can produce quality context of information, with no significant difference from the copyright approach. Good quality material can be gathered from either a classic copyright licensed encyclopaedia, or open-source like organized communities with copyleft licensed information.



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