Wikipedia vs. Britannica – Alan Johnson isn’t as dumb as people are claiming!
Posted by markharrison on April 19, 2007
The UK Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, gave a speech last week, at the annual conference of the National Association of Schoolteachers and Union of Women Teachers, in which he praised Wikipedia for providing free access to information that, a few years ago, was only available to those with deep pockets able to afford things like the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Over the last week, there have been various attacks on Mr. Johnson (like this one in the Guardian), which have pointed out that Wikipedia contains various errors, and therefore he shouldn’t have recommended it. Several of these attacks have held up Encyclopedia Britannica as a model of good scholarship.
The difference in styles is obvious.
- Wikipedia allows anyone to go in and edit articles, and assumes that, overall, there will be a lot more people will working to make sure that errors are corrected than there will be vandals who deliberately (or accidentally) get things wrong.
- Britannica, on the other hand, employs respected experts to write the articles, to ensure accuracy.
One would expect that an encyclopaedia compiled by experts would be a lot more accurate, right?
About a year ago, Nature magazine decided to test this. What they did was clever – they picked a bunch of articles from Wikipedia and from Britannica, and sent them off to a group of specialists in the fields of the articles. They asked the specialists to pick up any mistakes – however they didn’t tell the specialists where the articles came from.
The specialists found 8 major mistakes! Four from Wikipedia – and four from Britannica.
The specialists found a larger number of more minor errors, and to be fair, more of these came from Wikipedia (162) than Britannica (123).
But the differences aren’t staggering.
In the various articles in the week (particularly on the BBC which has, as ever, done a good job of reporting the debate), various journalists have made the point that students should not trust wikipedia, but should instead double-check references and sources – in fact, follow standard academic and journalistic practice.
The problem is that many of the articles have failed to point out that the same is true of Britannica!
So, maybe Alan Johnson had a point – if both contain similar levels of errors, why would you choose the one that cost several thousand quid over the free one?