Factually Speaking

Think Wikipedia is error-ridden? Britannica's nearly as bad—and isn't nearly as nimble.

For a reference work whose editorial staff consists, basically, of any dumbass with Internet access and one good typing finger, Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) sure has ambition. "It's our goal to be as good as Britannica [britannica.com] across the board," said Jimmy Wales, founder of the openly collaborative online encyclopedia, responding to a recent surge of criticism from educators and other cultural gatekeepers concerned with the increasing popularity of Wikipedia's intellectual free-for-all. Soon after, the science journal Nature published a report finding that the average Wikipedia article on scientific topics contains no fewer than four factual errors, which might have suggested that the online upstart has a long way to go to catch up with the reigning authority, except that it didn't: The same report found the Encyclopaedia Britannica only marginally more accurate, with an average error count of three.

image: Lord Lindsey Buckingham-Palace

The good news, in this case, was also the bad news. Where Wikipedia fans celebrated the findings as proof of the surprisingly high-quality work an amorphous mob of author-editors can produce, others brooded over the revelation that the "gold standard" of encyclopedias is in fact, as one information scientist put it, an "18-carat standard" and not a 24. But the focus on relative quality missed the more relevant point of comparison. Of the 42 Wikipedia and Britannica articles Nature sent to outside experts for review, the only ones that could be corrected—immediately—by those same experts were Wikipedia's. Whether those corrections were actually made the report doesn't say, but the implication is clear: Maintaining the gold standard of reference works is everybody's responsibility now. And if the experts of the world ever want that standard to rise higher than Britannica's, they'll have to stop griping that Wikipedia is broken, get off their individual and institutional asses, and fix it.

 
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