A war of words: An explosion of encyclopedias

A tiny tempest has been rattling the delicate teacups of the normally staid and distinctly upright editors of the long-standing and highly respected British science journal Nature (www.nature.com).

May 1st, 2006

A tiny tempest has been rattling the delicate teacups of the normally staid and distinctly upright editors of the long-standing and highly respected British science journal Nature (www.nature.com). The journal has been published continuously since 1869 and is one of the most prestigious publications in the scientific research world. The journal’s credentials are generally impeccable.

Hence, it came as a complete surprise to find the editors of Nature in the center of an unseemly academic spat. Pausing after the subtle stimulation of their morning “elevenses,” these poor benighted souls had the temerity to attempt a critical comparison of the equally venerable Encyclopedia Britannica (1768) with the johnny-come-lately online encyclopedia called Wikipedia (2001) (www.wikipedia.org).

The Nature editors, somewhat foolishly, decided to have a crack at comparing the old and the new by asking highly reputable scholars to compare pairs of articles from the two encyclopedias. Not surprisingly, the band of eminent researchers found errors in both publications, some egregious but the majority somewhat minor.

Perhaps I should explain that the two reference works under scrutiny here are written and compiled in radically different ways. Britannica is conventionally developed with contributions from widely recognized academic experts in the appropriate fields whereas Wikipedia is developed in an online collegial fashion in which anyone can write an article and any registered reader can amend the article. Thus, a kind of Web-based consensus-building takes place quite rapidly. Generally, this process works effectively, in my view.

Wikipedia has been a runaway success, albeit with some arguably dubious contributions here and there, while Britannica has been struggling to find its role on the Internet, resting too much, perhaps, on its former glories as THE work of reference around the world. So it should have come as no surprise that when the editors of Nature wanted a benchmark to examine Wikipedia, they chose Britannica. So far, so good.

But then, the whole thing backfired on the editors of Nature. Irate that the Britannica should have been compared with the “amateurish” Wikipedia and, even worse, should have been accused of inaccuracies, the Britannica guys fired several salvos from their Web site denigrating Nature. And, of course, Nature fired back with an open letter on their Web site. So I was prompted to do a little research of my own.

First, I checked into the Britannica Web site (www.britannica.com) to see what the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about Wikipedia and got this sniffy response: “Sorry, we were unable to find results for your search.” Well! Naturally, I had to give equal time to the contender so I looked up Britannica on Wikipedia and got several pages of informative (and probably accurate) stuff.

For the second part of my unscientific research, I looked up the word “laser” on both Web sites and, once again, I retrieved essentially similar results from the two Web sites. And so it went with other words from the laser field. I’d have to say that Wikipedia was often the more pithy of the two but Britannica was often more literate, in a typically British way. I would certainly hesitate to declare a “winner,” but I would describe the furor as a “storm in a teacup.”

Finally, an open note to my long-suffering editors at Laser Focus World: neither of these two reference works had an entry for this publication. Maybe you should write one for Wikipedia before some malicious reader enters a description. Getting a mention in Britannica may be more difficult. However, that’s perhaps as it should be.

Jeffrey Bairstow,
Contributing Editor


Jeffrey Bairstow’s April column on podcasts included the incorrect name for NIST; the correct name is National Institute of Standards and Technology. Also, the “Quantum Information/Bose-Einstein Condensates” podcast from NIST is available free of charge.

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