March 24, 2006 12:05 PM PST

Belatedly, Britannica lambastes Wikipedia findings

Encyclopedia Britannica has reopened the debate over how its accuracy stacks up against that of its online rival, Wikipedia.

The publisher of the venerable encyclopedia this week released a scathing 20-page rebuttal to a December article in the journal Nature that tallied errors in both Britannica and Wikipedia and found that the Web upstart more than held its own. The experts who reviewed comparable entries found 162 factual errors, omissions or misleading statements for Wikipedia, compared with 123 for Brittanica.

The article was widely seen as a validation of Wikipedia's content and methods. The Internet, meanwhile, has made the Encyclopedia Britannica an endangered species.

The Britannica retort criticized both the techniques Nature used in its comparison and the manner in which the assessment was presented to readers. It also demanded a public retraction. (Click here for a PDF of the 20-page report.)

According to Britannica, Nature sent out re-edited, rearranged and truncated versions of Britannica entries to reviewers and included samples that were not even from its encyclopedia texts. Britannica also accuses Nature editors of failing to verify its reviewers' findings of inaccuracy, saying that in many cases the findings were scientifically or factually wrong.

For example, one reviewer in the Nature article said that Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar's "Principles of Stellar Dynamics" was published in 1943, not 1942 as its Britannica entry states. Britannica disputes the charge, citing the Library of Congress as its primary source.

"This study has been cited all over the world, and it's invalid," Dale Hoiberg, Britannica's editor in chief, said in a statement. "We have never claimed that Britannica is error-free, but Nature attributed to us dozens of inaccuracies that simply were not inaccuracies at all. We practice strong scholarship, reasoned judgment, and continuous editorial review, and we publish a reliable, high-quality encyclopedia. By its flawed analysis and false accusations, Nature did us a great disservice."

The Nature article came out at a critical time for Wikipedia, whose credibility had been very publicly called into question. Most notably, it was under attack for an entry on John Siegenthaler that erroneously linked the journalist and former Washington insider to a pair of assassinations.

Where Britannica and other traditional encyclopedias tap subject matter experts to produce articles in a closed editorial system, Wikipedia entries can be created and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has long maintained that the site's accuracy is ensured through self-policing by its readers and contributors.

Wikipedia also happens to be completely free. Britannica offers some limited free content and a free 7-day trial to full entries, but unlimited access to full entries is $11.95 per month or $69.95 per year. To justify those fees, Britannica depends on its academic credentials and reputation for accuracy.

Nature answered the charges this week in a statement indicating no remorse and reaffirming its original assessment. "We reject those accusations, and are confident our comparison was fair," the publication said.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia's burgeoning status on the Internet continues apace. Earlier this month, its publisher, the Wikimedia Foundation, reported the addition of the 1 millionth article to the English-language version of Wikipedia.

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educational cred
As a college student Ive used Wikipedia for years as a great place to start research, or to broaden my understanding on many subjects. The structure and depth of the website is awesome, but for everything that it is, I do not believe it is meant to be a one stop shop for information. I have yet to attend a class (or even hear of one) where Wikipedia is allowed as a reference on a bibliography. For it to be compared to The Encyclopedia Britannica as competition is a statement to the outstanding job the people at Wikipedia are doing.
Posted by hedleas (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wikipedia covers subjects that EB won't ever touch. Where else could you find the history of Babylon 5 (not the show itself, but the fiction within the show)?

Also, Wikipedia is a delight to get lost in. A couple weeks ago someone commented that Wikipedia was good to confirm that a foot is 12 inches, but not to research something controversial like what started the Civil War. Heh-heh. When I went and looked up "foot" I learned that actually, sometimes, believe it or not, a foot is NOT 12 inches! I got lost for a good 30 minutes in the history of foot, etc.

That said, if I was writing a scholarly work, or a paper for school/college, I'd certainly prefer to cite EB over Wikipedia. But, rarely is that a need in my life. Therefore, Wikipedia is my main reference for various and mundane topics.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
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Nature more inaccurate than Wikipedia or EB
I was surprised at Nature's article on EB's accuracy, but I'm shocked at the EB report on Nature's article in response. Reading through it makes Nature sound like an amateur-level publication with no credibility. I'd be very interested to see a more detailed response from Nature than what they've given so far.
Posted by puckjunkie (2 comments )
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Nature more inaccurate than Wikipedia or EB
not perfectly relevent but reminds me of a quote "You could write the history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature." Paul Lauterbur (smart guy)
Posted by roy cactus (13 comments )
Link Flag
Sounds like Britannica spent several months researching the details of the claims and refuting them. What are they trying to do, write an encyclopedia? Oh... nevermind.
Posted by bp2004 (26 comments )
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Wikipedia great on some stuff not so good on others
Wikipedia does indeed provide a great service to the public. I always use it when I need to lookup new information. But most of what I lookup is factual information (like looking up history of companies or biological creatures etc.), but I have found it to be a bad source when the item in question is debatable. I won't rely on Wikipedia for hotly debated political information for example because if you lookup any such item and checkout the article history you will usually see two people continuously modifying each others commits because each one strongly holds a different opinion on the subject matter. With topics like these its important to know the author of the article because their credibility as an unbiased source is important to the quality of the information. Postings by any body on the web won't work for such situations, and this is where I think sources like Britannica are more credible.

All in all Wikipedia is a great resource. Just use it with caution.
Posted by Sure Thing (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wikipedia's concept is great but use with care
I totally agree that Wikipedia is a great concept and I support it becuase it is the spirit of the Internet --- sharing. However, it is too far out even to compare EB for accuracy. I will advise my student to use but not to trust it entirely. It is good as an inroad to knowledge which enables you to find out more but you need to find second sources for contents you have doubt.

Posted by jimmychoi (1 comment )
Link Flag
I use W. rarely, and then only to check on some mathematical
constant or definition; as a maths dictionary, if you will. It
seems to return accurate information. Try, e.g., the entry on
Squaring the Circle.

naf 3.25.06
Posted by nick fortis (16 comments )
Link Flag
Sounds fishy...
I wonder what political persuasion the folks are at Nature. I can only guess, and fanatics about open source. They will make up lies just as they have done with Linux and the OS movement. Moreover, neither source are considered scholarly works that are peer reviewed, so both are marginal a best for research. For example, the other day I was reading about our Sun on Wikipedia and so anonymous joker inserted the following:

"The sun has the largest *****"

What a dumb immature joke. Clearly there is no editoral control on Wikipedia. At least Brittanica has that going for it.
Posted by WJeansonne (480 comments )
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Wrong - Willaim
When you found that silly insertion in Wikipedia - there is editorial control. YOU could/should have corrected it (obviously, I have the largest.....well, let's not go there). But the reader IS the editor.
Posted by (409 comments )
Link Flag
A reasoned opinion
If, in fact Britannica is correct and Nature has erred, Nature should do the right thing and correct their errors. To the extent that Britannica has an axe to grind (protecting their reputation-and revenue stream) Britanica is certainly within it's rights and should press forward...vigorously.
Wikipedia is a worthwile experiment in collective consciousness, and should be continued, and rewarded through encouragement and participation, particularly by those with knowledge to contribute.
My guess that each is partly right, Nature is trying to demonstate..what? That Britannica may have errors? Ok, I think that's a worthwhile check on established "authority."
Britannica? Absolutely is required to continually strengthen it's standards through constantly reinforcing credibility.
Wikipedia? The very nature of Wikipedia, not being composed of noted "experts" but many different people with different motivations, is Wikipedia's strength, and it's weakness. More errors are to be expected, but hopefully, in the end, those with knowledge to contribute will do so, with the end result of not only a "gesthalt" kind of accuracy, but a symbiotic truthfullness, that by it's nature encompasses more than "just the facts."
Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
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Wikipedia is no Britannica
Wikipedia has been trying to pat itself on the back, and act as if they have the stature and qaulity of Encyclopedia Britannica that, anyone with an ounce of sense should know is not true.

Encyclopedia Britannica has over a hundred years of information, including a majority of material that was written by the original researchers of various topics who went on to become world famous in their own rights.

Wikipedia, being less than five years old, and very biased does not compare, especially when it comes to matters that detail information about Afrimericans.

Wikipedia has demostrated not only a preference for inaccurate information, but it has engaged in subtle covert acts of racial discrimination toward Afrimericans in all articles about, and related to Afrimerican people.

Wikipedia administrators have deleted all "AFRIMERICAN" Articles, banned the author and creator of the Afrimerican Word and Definition from posting or editing on Wikipedia, while creating a link for all searches for "AFRIMERICAN" to be redirected to the aforementioned African-American Article,
and they have miscontrued ethnic information on all the articles that discuss this race.

Wikipedia is no where near being of Britannica quality, and anything researched on Wikipedia should be triple checked elsewhere.
Posted by Afrimerican (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reads like a Wikipedia Ad
Your article reads like a Wikipedia Ad. I haven't read the Nature article, but other reviews of it have characterized Britannica as bad and Wikipedia as worse. Who can trust an unedited encyclopedia? The idea is nonsensical, though it must be generating income for someone for it be on the paid portion of search engine results and for the name to be turning up in so many commerical areas.
Posted by grzlee (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
This is an outrage. As an accomplished student with a 4.0 GPA and extensive experience referencing for research papers, I have never used Wikipedia as a reference as it does not hold up to College academic standards and does not offer enough detail to assist in completing college level writing. The inaccuracies in Wikipedia not only outnumber what was found in Britannica, but you would expect more mistakes in such an extensive and thorough publication, like Britannica.
Posted by rokeefemack (1 comment )
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