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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?


4 Responses to “Wikipedia vs. Britannica – Alan Johnson isn’t as dumb as people are claiming!”

  1. Dan Wilson said

    The comparisons between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are very interesting.

    Encyclopaedia Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of its brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar.

    It is interesting that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing a new search engine. It is the combination of a) improved search engines and b) the success of Wikipedia that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many institutions and individuals are questioning the need to pay to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica when the content is free on the internet. Google even has free direct links to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s main database !!

  2. One of our very first entries was concerning Wikipedia. It is a very brief overview of the site. If you would like to read it, you can find it at:

  3. Up to 9 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time – using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
    Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, ‘Jimbo’s second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is ultimately at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

    For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails will be part of our next web newsletter ‘Scientific Discovery’. It will be on-line by the end of July 2007. Overall, it is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with ‘Jimbo’ and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to ‘Jimbo’s’ opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball home and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time – the web link is

    Dr. David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation Charity (reg. no. CH- – 11th July 2005)
    Bern, Switzerland

  4. Further to David’s point above, I’ve been made aware of various other problems at Wikipedia.

    In my original blog post, I said that “students should not trust wikipedia, but should instead double-check references and sources – in fact, follow standard academic and journalistic practice.”

    To clarify, the reason I mentioned “students” was that I was writing a piece about the education secretary…

    … the importance of double-checking references and sources applies to everyone serious about learning!


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