Wall St. Journal Online edition presented an interesting exchange this week between wikipedia founder Jummy Wales and Britannica’s editor in chief, Dale Hoiberg (http://tinyurl.com/jxe33). Since Nature published a study indicating that the accuracy of entries on Wikipedia was comparable to Britannica, traditionalists have been quick to find fault with the study or point to clear errors in Wikipedia, but this is no simple argument. The reported discussion certainly paints Wikipedia as the brave new entrant come to break the monopoly on ‘facts’ and some of Hoiberg’s comments are a little defensive but I think most of us agree we don’t want a mass of inaccurate and biased entries passed off as reliable (we get enough of that on TV). The Nature study asked experts to judge various entries without knowing from which source they came, and the results indicated an average of 4 errors per entry in Wikipedia to 3 errors per entry in Brittanica. The main point here is these rates are so comparable, though without looking at the type of errors found you might be forgiven for wondering why Britannica is so respected if each entry has that many errors. Nature released data showing the type of errors found and these include judgements of ‘overstatement’ or ‘too short’ as well as lack of clarity, failure to include certain works in a bibliography, and a mispelling of a place name (using an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a’). In fact, Nature concluded there were only 8 serious errors reported, and these were equally divided, four each in Wikipedia and Britannica.
A key argument made by Wales is that Wikipedia really builds on the openness principle: all can contribute through entries or corrections, and the result is likely to be more representative than the invitation-only contributions of Britannica. Since entrants to Wikipedia have to be motivated to contribute (have you?) there is certainly potential for mischief but Wales talks of moving to semi-protected and even editable ‘ nonvandalized’ versions to improve quality. And the proof is in the pudding, as they say. He likens publishing entries that are still being edited to Britannica’s revealing the in-draft versions of new entries which they won’t do of course (though there’s probably a collector somewhere who would pay for those).
In sum, arguments that authority must be maintained or chaos will ensue in the information world seem to be far less convincing than they once were. Maybe a little authority goes a long way. Stay tuned.