Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Great Wikipedia vs. Encyclopaedia Britannica debate

I read a wonderful interview (really a debate) in the Wall St. Journal between the leaders of the Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Both are extremely sharp men with very different opinions and financial motivations. Here's a link.

First question: Why is this debate relevant to Personal Finance Bloggers?

My answer:

Life's every day decisions (many of which are economic) are based on information. Decisions on what product to buy, what life strategies to take, where to live, etc.... Increasingly, many of us use the internet to Google a topic of interest and use on-line sources to research an appropriate decision.

I believe we all know that not all on-line sources are accurate and many are not reputable in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, we find ourselves using these sources frequently - often based on convenience or cost of access.

Here's an interesting question:

How many people pay to subscribe to the Britannica (for $70/yr.) vs. Use the free Wikipedia? I admit to preferring the latter. I have certainly used the Wikipedia to research different towns and communities my wife and I have considered visiting or even relocating to. Suprisingly, Wikipedia has many articles on more arcane subjects, such as comic books (did I just discredit myself there?). Imagine how helpful a quick summary of a collectible might be before buying or selling it.

I often wonder if starting at the Wikipedia would be a better starting point for factual searches rather than an initial google search.

My point above raises, perhaps, a much more important question, one that the debate (which I summarize below) addressed indirectly:

Does a freely accessible information source competing against a commercial, for-fee information source, have the ability to leverage it's great number of users to produce a comparable quality product? One might suppose that the public intellectual marketplace would provide so much greater exposure to various articles that errors would be addressed more quickly - what happens when the errors are not questions of fact, but opinion?

A few quick points about the interview:

  1. This was not a traditional interview - both participants addressed different topics - they also directly rebutted each other's statements.
  2. At times the rebuttals became fairly personal.
  3. There was a very interesting discrepancy between personality and style - especially when the Britannica editor attacked the founder of Wikipedia for incorporating links into their discussion - it seems that it was created on-line (real-time?).

The fundamental question of the debate is this:

Which is more effective in creating a comprehensive high-quality on-line encyclopaedia: an open community-based model or a private discretionary model?

  • The open model accommodates near-real-time updates and a world-wide audience with few if any barriers to contribution (other than a four day membership requirement before being allowed to edit articles)
  • The closed model involves established academic authorities, fact checkers and a vastly smaller number of contributors

Some interesting points:

  • Wikipedia is already larger than the Britannica
  • Britannica is not based out of Britain, but Chicago, IL, USA
  • The University of Chicago is one of the largest contributors (their Phoenix logo can be seen as an imprint on some editions)

BTW, in order to write this post I had to learn how to spell encyclopaedia and Britannica

1 comment:

Loren Bluebear said...

Wikipedia, hands down.

There are some comparisons of Wikipedia vs Britannica available. Google for "wikipedia britannica" (remove the quotes). My recall is that for technical articles, Wikipedia is more accurate than Britannica.

There are some anecdotal notes on exceptions. The one cited most often is about the Wikipedia article on John Seigenthaller, Sr, father of the weekend national newsreader John Seigenthaller. The original article, now corrected, asserted that Seigenthaller had "done something bad" (I don't recall what it was).

Similarly, the administrators had completely blocked edits from the IP-addresses of members of congress(!). It appears that congressional staffers were editing the articles on house and senage members that contained true, but politically disadvantageous statements that they felt harmed their chances for re-election.

Also, there were some articles that are actively annotated with comments that the article reflects some particular bias. ... At least they tell you the bias.

There was an article recently by a candidate for the board of directors at Wikipedia about "Who Writes Wikipedia" that was most revealing. Previous studies suggested that a small cadre of souls wrote most of it. The author's assertion is that the analysis of the metrics was incorrect. The earlier suggestion of the small cadre is in error. A more rigorous analysis of the metrics suggest that a huge number of people contribute whole articles, but those same individuals contribute few articles. Something about knowledge within their domain of expertise. The most frequent "contributors" (metrics of who made the most edits) are simply reformatting, editing for style, applying Wikipedia's style guide, so to speak.

Wikipedia or Britannica? At $70 for a subscription to Britannica, it's a no brainer: Wikipedia. Were Britannica free, it would still be a no brainer, in my opinion: Wikipedia.

I do go to Wikipedia first (before Google) when I suspect the topic is covered. I expect the article to be technically accurate, written by a subject matter expert, editied to conform to a consistent style guide. I have yet to be disappointed.