Wikipedia vs. Britannica


In a study by Nature, a science journal, expert reviewers found Wikipedia science entries to be not much less accurate than Encyclopaedia Britannica entries:

[A]n expert-led investigation carried out by Nature — the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science — suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule.

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

Here’s how the study was done:

In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature’s news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

One could view the results as reflecting well on Wikipedia. One could also view them as as reflecting very badly on Britannica.

Hat tip: BoingBoing

Orin Kerr has some interesting reflections on Wikipedia here and here; and Eugene Volokh’s thoughts on Wikipedia are also worth reading.

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4 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Interesting result. But there’s more to an encyclopedia than accuracy. Completeness, for one thing. Also a certain level of consistency. My guess is Wikipedia lags behind in those things. The Nature article notes:

    “Several Nature reviewers agreed with Panelas’ point on readability, commenting that the Wikipedia article they reviewed was poorly structured and confusing. This criticism is common among information scientists, who also point to other problems with article quality, such as undue prominence given to controversial scientific theories. But Michael Twidale, an information scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that Wikipedia’s strongest suit is the speed at which it can updated, a factor not considered by Nature’s reviewers.”

  2. asdf says:

    Case in point: the wikipedia article for “quark”, mentioned in the comparison to EB, has a recent edit correcting every occurrence of “hardon” to “hadron”, and an edit just before that making the opposite change. If an EB article on quarks had misspelled “hadron” as “hardon” it would have taken *years* for a correction to make its way into the print edition. Score one for wikipedia.

  3. Greg Lastowka says:

    I was reading Orin’s comments about the Wikipedia entry on the Patriot Act, comaparing it to the above, and wondering: does Britannica have an entry on the Patriot Act? If so, what would Orin think of it?

  4. Anonymoose says:

    I love wikipedia, even when it’s wrong.

    Check out this joint wikipedia/google search thingy

    I made for a home page.