Encyclopedia Britannica Fights Back?

I don’t know whether this is the right response to the challenge of Wikipedia, but Encylopaedia Britannica seems to think so, according to The Boston Globe :

To respond to competitive challenges from Google, Yahoo, and the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Britannica today will announce it is returning to an old practice after a lapse of a decade by naming an advisory board, whose 15 members top editor Dale Hoiberg calls ”some of the smartest people on earth.” The Chicago-based publisher hopes that the prestige and knowledge of the members — four Nobel laureates and two Pulitzer Prize winners among them — will help reassert the authority of an encyclopedia first published in 1768 but buffeted in an age when the Internet has loosened the definition of what is factual.

Librarians, teachers, and scholars say they are increasingly alarmed at the way students pull information from anywhere online and accept it as valid, without much consideration of the source. Wikipedia, for instance, allows anyone to make entries and yet draws 5 million visitors a month.

”You can’t do something so authoritative easily. It’s hard work,” said Hoiberg, a Britannica senior vice president.

Loosened the definition of what is factual? I’m guessing this is not the same Encyclopaedia Britannica that recently acknowledged one schoolboy was able to spot five errors in two entries. The issue is not whether people are redefining what is factual, it’s whether they so readily accept something as more authoritative than other sources because it has a long history behind it, or because the author of the piece, and those editing it, have titles before their name and initials after it. As I wrote in a recent column on the accuracy of Wikipedia, it’s not about the contributor’s qualifications, but about their contribution. The folk putting together Wikipedia don’t sit around making stuff up — if they did, they’ll quickly find their entries altered, deleted, or put into some sort of side-channel while the matter is earnestly debated. It’s peer review on steroids.

There’s some good recent history of EB in The Boston Globe’s piece. And the author, Eric Ferkenhoff, talks to Jimmy Wales as well for balance. But I think he may have allowed EB to put a bit too much of their spin on the story. The hiring of an advisory board sounds to me less about ‘reasserting authority’ and more about wondering how the hell to create a product that can compete with the collective wisdom of thousands of Wikipedians. No one is claming that Wikipedia is perfect (at least as far as I know), and that it should not be used merely as one of several sources, but experience should probably teach us that the same is true of other reference books, including Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Of course, there is concern more generally about students taking stuff from the Internet and accepting it as fact. As Eric writes:

It is such uncertainty about the accuracy of Web-based information that troubles many traditionalists. ”I think it would be impossible to find a librarian, or even a teacher, in the country that’s not concerned,” said Jo Sommers, head librarian at The Latin School of Chicago, an elite private school. ”The kids, they gravitate to the Googles, and they don’t understand the issue of going to sources that are authoritative, sources that have been vetted. They just assume that everything they find on the Internet is right.”

But that’s a problem for teachers to explain to their students and to help them distinguish from rubbish and fact (and the importance of confirming information elsewhere). But it’s disingenuous to imply from that that there is EB on one side of the fence and then there’s Googe/Yahoo/Wikipedia and all the rest. After all, EB is on the Internet too. Does that make it rubbish?

22. July 2005 by jeremy
Categories: Internet life, Media, Resources | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. The problem isn’t limited to the Internet, when I started giving interviews to journalists, I discovered how the press tends to filter and distort anything you give them and how gullible is the public.

    You are right, teachers and parents should teach their kids to be sceptical, rational, critical, to look for corroborating sources and proof, to check the authors’ history, etc… instead people prefer to teach their kids to believe in santa claus, the tooth fairy, urban legends, taboos, religion and creationism.

  2. What can we do about all this ? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: “Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?” And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say., Richard Dawkins, Open letter to his 10 year old daughter (http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/dawkins2.html)

  3. Pingback: EBlogger

  4. I think Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds should have taught us to beware of “experts”. That’s the power of Wikipedia – it has put the Wisdom of Crowds to work.