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Wikipedia's Accuracy Compared to Britannica 418

Posted by Zonk
from the elementary-my-dear-data dept.
Raul654 writes "Nature magazine recently conducted a head-to-head competition between Wikipedia and Britannica, having experts compare 42 science-related articles. The result was that Wikipedia had about 4 errors per article, while Britannica had about 3. However, a pair of endevouring Wikipedians dug a little deeper and discovered that the Wikipedia articles in the sample were, on average, 2.6 times longer than Britannica's - meaning Wikipedia has an error rate far less than Britannica's." Interesting, considering some past claims. Story available on the BBC as well.
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Wikipedia's Accuracy Compared to Britannica

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  • Dooop (Score:4, Funny)

    by MullerMn (526350) * <andy&andrewarbon,co,uk> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:37AM (#14263860) Homepage
    Slashdot Article Compared to Earlier Slashback: Found To Be Identical

    Story available here [slashdot.org].
    • Not exactly (Score:3, Informative)

      by bersl2 (689221)
      However, a pair of endevouring Wikipedians dug a little deeper and discovered that the Wikipedia articles in the sample were, on average, 2.6 times longer than Britannica's - meaning Wikipedia has an error rate far less than Britannica's.

      That part's new.
      • Re:Not exactly (Score:4, Insightful)

        by irote (834216) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:56AM (#14264038)
        And it's also nonsense. The Wikipedia article is written flabbily, by a collection of authors, some experts, some not, some good writers, some terrible ones.

        The Britannica, on the other hand, is written by someone with clear credentials as an expert, to a word limit, and is then edited for conciseness and clarity. That is to say, the Britannica piece will undoubtedly say more than the Wikipedia piece. The error per word rate in Britannica may be higher, but the error per fact rate is probably much more favourable to Britannica.

        Easy example - compare the writing in a mainstream newspaper to a well-written one with tight editorial policies, like the Financial Times or the Economist. Your average Sidney Morning Herald, Guardian or San Francisco Chroncile article is probably longer, but it says less.
        • by croddy (659025) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:18AM (#14264218)
          So, what you're saying is that Britannica has a long way to go before it will be useful as a wiki?
        • Re:Not exactly (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Jugalator (259273)
          The Wikipedia article is written flabbily, by a collection of authors, some experts, some not, some good writers, some terrible ones.

          Yes, and terrible contributions gets edited over time as the article stabilizes.

          The error per word rate in Britannica may be higher, but the error per fact rate is probably much more favourable to Britannica.

          So you have no idea or basis for this claim?

          Easy example - compare the writing in a mainstream newspaper to a well-written one with tight editorial policies, like the Fina
          • Re:Not exactly (Score:3, Interesting)

            by EpsCylonB (307640)
            They should compare only articles of a certain age in wikipedia with the brittanica articles, and myabe wikipedia should warn if an article is either new or been hardly accessed.
          • Re:Not exactly (Score:4, Insightful)

            by flyingsquid (813711) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @12:32PM (#14265428)
            I don't know about you, but from the articles I've seen on Wikipedia, they've been quite rich in information.

            Of course, there's the issue of the type of information. Wikipedia has a dissertation-length discussions of Half-Life 2 and Babylon 5, for instance, and a meager couple screens devoted to Moby Dick (unless you count the discussions of Moby Dick's influences in Star Trek episodes, Japanese video games and comic books as a serious discussion of the novel).

            Though I suppose you could make the argument that this is actually a strength rather than a weakness. Moby Dick may be a masterwork of American fiction, but today, video games and sci-fi soap operas have a vastly greater cultural influence than Herman Melville.

            • Re:Not exactly (Score:4, Interesting)

              by fbjon (692006) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @01:22PM (#14265808) Homepage Journal
              It really seems that Wikipedia is an good encyclopedia of things that actually matter to most people.
            • Re:Not exactly (Score:3, Informative)

              by jdavidb (449077)

              I count five screens of information, not counting the "Selected adaptations and references" section, which certainly references more than Star Trek. Meanwhile, I went searching on britannica.com and found that there was no article at all on Moby Dick. There was an article on Herman Melville, though. It's 2845 words long. I admit that beats Wikipedia's, which is 883 not counting the bibliography. But combined with the text of the Moby Dick entry, that's 2672 words total, again not counting the (not just

        • Re:Not exactly (Score:4, Insightful)

          by CastrTroy (595695) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:54AM (#14264528) Homepage
          Yeah, but you're paying for britannica. I'd really expect them to have less than 3 errors per article. Wikipedia is a free enclopedia by the people, for the people. It will get better if the community gets bigger. There's a lot of stuff you'll find in wikipedia that you won't find in britannica, because people can write about whatever they want.
        • Re:Not exactly (Score:5, Insightful)

          by iabervon (1971) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @11:25AM (#14264833) Homepage Journal
          That is to say, the Britannica piece will undoubtedly say more than the Wikipedia piece.

          That's not actually true. Wikipedia's threshold for relevance is lower, so the articles say more, in addition to being less densely written. This is due, to a large extent, because Britannica has to print theirs, so they have pressure to keep things brief, whereas Wikipedia can go into lots of detail. I don't have access to Britannica, but I'm willing to bet that it doesn't explain the Reed-Solomon configuration for error correction on CDs [wikipedia.org]. So chances as that Wikipedia articles have more information in them, although not by as big a factor as the increase in size. Of course, there's no way for us to know at this point the characteristics of the articles that Nature used for this comparison, because they seem to have merged related articles in both cases. For example, most of the content of the Wikipedia "Field Effect Transistor" is in the articles on particular types (MOSFET, JFET, etc.), and the article on Woodward in Britannica must have gotten sections from other articles (e.g., overviews of things he worked on) pulled in if Nature compared versions of remotely similar lengths or scope, since Britannica doesn't break up this topic into articles the same way.
    • Re:Dooop (Score:5, Funny)

      by Prospero's Grue (876407) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:43AM (#14263915)
      Slashdot Article Compared to Earlier Slashback: Found To Be Identical

      Yeah, but the Slashdot Article is 1.4 times longer, so it's not as duped as you think...

    • Re:Dooop (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Please it took like me 2 seconds to find slander on Wikipedia...

      Here this was up just yesterday and was just taken takendown. YES it was up on the web for a while before being noticed. I think the point is it should not have been up AT ALL. There is nothing inpressive in how long or how fast something slanderous and stupid was caught. Without Wiki it WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN UP AT ALL.

      Under the rock group Dokken.

      In 2005, Don Dokken and Jani Lane of a band called Warrant participated in a civil union ceremony to
      • Re:Dooop (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ceejayoz (567949) <cj@ceejayoz.com> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @11:29AM (#14264868) Homepage Journal
        Here this was up just yesterday and was just taken takendown.

        So you left slander up on the Internet when you could easily have removed it? You're part of the problem!

        Without Wiki it WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN UP AT ALL.

        And neither would much of the useful content.

        Other Encyclopedias don't have problems, anywhere even remotely close to Wiki with its slander and information athentication WARS.

        Other encyclopedias don't have much of the more obscure information available in Wikipedia.
      • Re:Dooop (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Patik (584959)

        There is nothing inpressive in how long or how fast something slanderous and stupid was caught. Without Wiki it WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN UP AT ALL.

        If you had a system where changes and additions had to be approved by other users before being applied to an article you would still get slander but in a different form -- slanderous people and trolls would simply watch the "waiting for approval" list and deny legitimate submissions while allowing their troll friends' slanderous submissions. Plus you'd have to worry

      • Re:Dooop (Score:3, Interesting)

        by timster (32400)
        When I was in junior high, people used to slip pages from porn into the encyclopedia volumes in the school library. An annoyance to be sure, but until our society gains the sense to lock teenagers up in solitary confinement, we will still encounter stupid pranks from time to time.
  • by aborchers (471342) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:42AM (#14263900) Homepage Journal
    So if I go to Wikipedia and type the word "gibblefinch" a few thousand times into an article, I can reduce its error rate?

    • Indeed. I think people need some education on how to establish proper metrics. There seems to be a misconception that just having metrics is sufficient. The significance and meaning behind most new metrics seems to be missing.
      • "Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that." -- Homer Simpson
      • OK. I can agree with this on one level, however these are a select number of articles that have been reviewed for inaccuracies. Presumably they don&#8217;t contain &#8220;gibblefinch&#8221;; repeated 5000 times to increase article length. What is indicated here is that per kilobyte (as a metric for length) there are fewer errors. Being more lengthy does not necessarily mean there&#8217;s really more information contained on the page, but given the gross difference in article length I&
    • by Phreakiture (547094) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:50AM (#14263982) Homepage

      So if I go to Wikipedia and type the word "gibblefinch" a few thousand times into an article, I can reduce its error rate?

      Only if that is what the article should say, and saying so is useful to someone looking up whatever topic it is you are looking up and finding the aforementioned gibblefinch storm. If, on the other hand, it is not useful or relevant, then not, it would tend to increase the error rate, or at lease lower the signal to noise ratio, rather greatly.

      • If I write an article with a certain number of errors, and the rewrite the same article with the exact same conceptual content, but in a much more verbose manner, the article hasn't improved: it's still as right (or wrong) as the short version was. If the errors are conceptual or factual, the total length of the article is absolutely irrelevant. The only thing that is important is the number of concepts or facts expressed, and how many of them are right. So unless the additional length introduces more facts
  • by erick99 (743982) <homerun@gmail.com> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:42AM (#14263901)
    I am not sure that it is reasonable to consider error rate primarily as errors per unit of text. In that case, one could write a submission and then insert a lot of fluff to lower the "error rate." I would consider the absolute amount of errors per submission at least as important as the quantity of errors as a function of quantity of text. Just a thought.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Number of errors per article isn't that meaningfull of a measure either. What type of errors? Does one have a spelling error while the other says a whale is a fish?
    • by typical (886006) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:33AM (#14264339) Journal
      Other than as a willy-waving metric, it seems that the error count in a tiny sampling of articles isn't useful at *all*.

      I mean, it's pretty clear that both Britannica and Wikipedia are useful references. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but neither is gong to be unilaterally better.

      Now, I personally use WP exclusively; It's available from anywhere with a web browser, it's free, it covers the sorts of things that I deal with frequently (tech, pop culture, people) and I'm a fan of the open source mentality. For my particular needs, WP is better suited. However, I don't see a need to claim that one is *better*. There are going to be WP articles that are *chock full* of errors on some points or link to sketchy sources, and there are going to be Britannica articles that just don't exist compared to WP or are simply outdated. It doesn't take people very long to figure out which is more appropriate to their uses, because aside from the initially surprising fact (to me, at least) that WP works and doesn't simply fall prey to vandalism, the strengths of the two aren't that hard to figure out. I'm not going to use WP as a primary source for a research paper, but it's going to be the very first reference that I turn to when I want an overview of a topic.

      I think that WP still has some challenges to pass -- WP contains articles on specific *products*, which Britannica completely lacks, and at some point, marketers are going to start expressing interest in the ability to freely edit Wikipedia articles on their products. But people that claim that WP is not useful are so clearly demonstrated wrong by a short while of using WP that there isn't any point in even arguing the point. It would be like someone claiming that Google isn't useful because it can return results to pages that aren't peer-reviewed.

      Right now, there's a lot of noise over the Seigenthaler incident, but that's a tiny ripple in a vast ocean -- people will find a way to solve problems like this (if not in WP, then in a competing, derived system), just because it's so useful to do so. Reputation systems, a second system that blocks admission of changes until someone reviews them, whatever. We haven't even scratched the surface of systems like this, and their value is clearly phenomenal. I have read far more history and computer science on WP than I've been motived to read about elsewhere for quite some time. I've looked up a number of things that I always wondered about (what "grunge [wikipedia.org]" actually *is*, for example), because WP is so quick to access, so vast, and so readable.

      The best thing about all this is that WP is something that nobody (or very few people, at least) were making noise about until recently. The Internet solves problems (communication, latency, ability to provide links to other content, ease of collaboration, access to everyone to try out new system ideas) that allow incredible new systems that have never existed before in humanity's existence, and the number of new (as of yet raw perhaps, unpolished) systems is *exploding*. Search engines are the only thing that was an immediate and obvious application to me when the Web came into being, and even the mechanisms of something like Google were certainly not obvious. In the past few years, we have seen ideas like del.icio.us, yahoo's bundle of services, free webmail, Wikipedia, and so forth come into being. What's even more incredible is that these things are *enabling* technologies. Each one is a tool that allows people to more easily communicate or deal with things, which makes us even *more* powerful and makes it even easier for us to make new tools. If I can freely collaborate without long-distance phone charges with people in Sweden, I expand the number of people that I can share knowledge with. If I can read, at least in a rudimentary fashion, the languages that I can read through use of Babelfish, I have hugely increased the number of documents available to me. If I can take advantage
    • by shaitand (626655) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:53AM (#14264513) Journal
      We can safely assume the "experts" had moral concerns. Therefore they have corrected all the wikipedia errors leaving ZERO per article. Britanica on the other hand still has 3 per article.

      Although, a difference of 1 error per article in lengthy science articles is not substantial enough to pass the margin of error of the experts themselves.
  • Accuracy (Score:5, Funny)

    by penguinoid (724646) <spambait001@yahoo.com> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:42AM (#14263903) Homepage Journal
    Wikipedia has less errors, you say? We'll be fixing that shortly...
    -- The Britanica Team
  • Wikipedia is an excellent knowledge repository. Once you get what you came for there, you can better research what you are working on. There are just too many topics where a difference of opinion or perspective would be considered error or truth. I have yet to find a more comprehensive and accurate source of information though...
  • Versatility (Score:5, Insightful)

    by soulsteal (104635) <soulsteal.3l337@org> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:42AM (#14263908) Homepage
    Sure they found errors in Wikipedia and Britannica, but which one can you go back to and correct?

    Game, set, match!
  • by mattwarden (699984) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:43AM (#14263914) Homepage

    I think you would also need to take into consideration the maturity of the chosen articles, since Wikipedia's content evolves continuously rather than on set publication dates. Newer articles probably would have a higher error rate.

    • "Newer articles probably would have a higher error rate."

      I think the choice to use scince-related articles slants the results. There are not a lot of people who feel capable of writing about Epitaxy. On the other hand, those subjects that are more accessible to a large group of people, such as Ethanol or Thyroid have significantly higher error rates. I think it is probable that more popular subjects would have a higher error count due to 'urban myth' being included as fact.

  • by ehaggis (879721) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:43AM (#14263919) Homepage Journal
    As the article states, the writing style in Wikipedia can be poor. Low diction, poor grammar and bad structure contribute to the chaos.

    Most research I do on Wikipedia does not depend on good writing, but accurate information, especially on pop culture items or obscure "geek" subjects. Wikipedia does well in this. I have seen defaced articles "heal" with ten minutes of the incident.

    As a contributor to Wikipedia, I am glad it is gaining widespread notoriety and validation.
  • Informative (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drewzhrodague (606182) <drew@@@zhrodague...net> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:43AM (#14263921) Homepage Journal
    I find Wikipedia quite informative, and easy to get to. I don't see what the problem is, or why those people want to class-action Wikipedia. I've learned a bunch of things by browsing, and investigating things mentioned in the articles. Even if Wikipedia were a little bit innacurate, it would certainly beat out my first 8 years of education, where I've found almost all of the science I've learned is actually wrong (by talking to scientists, and reading books, and wikipedia).
    • by brian0918 (638904) <brian0918 AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:49AM (#14264481)
      The parent referred to this site [wikipediaclassaction.org], which states that the group is gathering complaints to file a class action lawsuit against Wikipedia.

      The problem? The people hosting the site are far from unbiased on the topic. The site is hosted by baou.com, which runs QuakeAID [wikipedia.org], a bogus "charity" set up after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

      Why are they mad at Wikipedia? After the earthquake, a member of QuakeAID with the username Baoutrust used Wikipedia to promote the QuakeAID article and the QuakeAID website. Apparently, this included listing QuakeAID on the list of charities for the tsunami survivors. When their true nature was discovered, they were removed from the list, and they got pissed. Since then, they've been smearing [baou.com] Wikipedia at every possible chance.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Writing style

    Nature said its reviewers found that Wikipedia entries were often poorly structured and confused.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica declined to comment directly on the findings.

    But a spokesman highlighted the quality of the entries on the free resource.

    "But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written," Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications is quoted as saying in Nature.

    This confused me, until I realized that single-sentenc

  • by AxelBoldt (1490) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:44AM (#14263932) Homepage
    Nature also published an editorial [nature.com] which asks scientists to contribute to Wikipedia: "Nature would like to encourage its readers to help. The idea is not to seek a replacement for established sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but to push forward the grand experiment that is Wikipedia, and to see how much it can improve. Select a topic close to your work and look it up on Wikipedia. If the entry contains errors or important omissions, dive in and help fix them. It need not take too long. And imagine the pay-off: you could be one of the people who helped turn an apparently stupid idea into a free, high-quality global resource."
    • So did Nature fix the errors it found?
  • by Ostien (893052) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:45AM (#14263941)
    Does Britannica have extencive articles on Lightsaber combat? [wikipedia.org]

    Wikipedia: 1
    Britannica: 0
  • by ceeam (39911) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:46AM (#14263946)
    What does Britannica say about "Goatse"?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goatse [wikipedia.org]
  • Did they fix them? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ctrl-Z (28806) <tim@timcoleman. c o m> on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:47AM (#14263954) Homepage Journal
    So, since they found these inaccuracies in the article, I would like to know whether they edited them and fixed them as they went, or just played the part of the silent observer. To me, this is the great thing about Wikipedia; if you know the subject and you find an inaccuracy, be bold and fix it already.
  • Longer article... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by everphilski (877346) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:47AM (#14263958) Journal
    ... doesn't mean a better article. Encyclopedias are meant to be concise and to the point. A starting point for research, not a be-all and end-all. And I don't agree with normalizing errors to the length of the article, it should be the number of errors per article. Just because you wrote more stuff it doesn't give you the leeway to screw up more...
    • by barawn (25691)
      Just because you wrote more stuff it doesn't give you the leeway to screw up more...

      Uh, so if the Brittanica has an article which says "Bill Clinton was the 41st President of the United States" and that's all, and Wikipedia has a 12-page entry on Clinton which gets his date-of-birth wrong by one day but is perfectly accurate everywhere else, that's okay?

      Look at some of the articles listed. The Wiki article (on Robert Burns Woodward) has a detailed breakdown of his life, his career, discoveries, and Nobel pr
  • by nysus (162232) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:49AM (#14263977)
    No resource, no matter who it's written by, is absolutely definitive. Any thorough research will require going to many different sources to arrive at the best approximation of the "truth." Any person who relies on just one source for their information any topic is making a mistake. Wikipedia, Britannica, and other reference works should be considered only as starting points for further research. They should be considered nothing more than signposts for finding your way to other ideas and avenues to explore a topic.
  • by ScentCone (795499) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:50AM (#14263984)
    But much of the extra length in the WP articles is often more commentator-ish, or blocks of material containing links, etc. Things that more traditional encyclopedias wouldn't want to include. And a lot of lengthier WP articles tend to get repititive, or have summaries and details that come close to being mutally unnecessary. Not a bad thing, just a different thing. Saying that WP articles are longer, and thus represent a lower real error rate is pretty misleading, I think. It's not the length of your article, it's how you use it.
  • by AxelBoldt (1490) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:50AM (#14263990) Homepage
    Note also that they "surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors" and found that "more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis." I wonder what percentage of Nature authors consult the Encylopaedia Britannica on a weekly basis.
  • Wikipedia is better except for the occasional libelous outright lie and the fact that virtually every article is filled with grammatical errors.
  • Britannica is authored by an entity which takes responsibility for its errors and has a long history of accuracy. Its content is "vetted", meaning that there is a measure of academic validity to what was written.

    Some Wikipedia entries are far more detailed and far more accurate than Britannica's - however, that doesn't change the fact that the content was written by unknown persons with unknown source material for their entries.
  • Since when? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:53AM (#14264011)
    "Wikipedia articles in the sample were, on average, 2.6 times longer than Britannica's"

    Since when does longer mean better? If anything, Britannica's conciseness could be the result of several revisions and reviews for impact per word. Encyclopedias are about bang for the buck -- you can't fit everything into an article. It's meant to be a starting point.

    That's where Wikipedia is supposed to excel -- the amount of live links available to primary web sites in addition to bibliography.
  • Two questions (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Colgate2003 (735182)
    "Accuracy per word," or whatever you want to call it, may be greater, but are those words as well-written or necessary in the Wikipedia article?

    Also, less than 3 errors/article compared to about 4 errors/article gives us more than 33% more errors/article Wikipedia. Many people (including Nature) are calling this close. Since when is 33% close? "Closer than expected," maybe but not close.
  • by nincehelser (935936) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @09:59AM (#14264072)
    Wikipedia seems fine for informal use, but how can you possible cite sources with something that is constantly changing?

  • Wiki has it all.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Himring (646324) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:04AM (#14264113) Homepage Journal
    No other encyclopedia or would-be encyclopedia covers as many topics as Wikipedia. I've used it to do everything from research SOX regulations for my job, to understanding my favorite online game, DoTA [wikipedia.org] to name it. And they even have a page on mail order brides [wikipedia.org]. Not that I've ever looked into that (god they're hot, and they all have the same name, Elena...).

  • by kalidasa (577403) * on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:08AM (#14264133) Journal
    If the Britannica article misspells 2 words, and the Wikipedia article is based upon an assumption that light travels through the medium of ether, does that mean that Wikipedia has half as many errors as Britannica? This is a lot more complicated than the kind of statistical error analysis these folks are trying for.

  • Did ANYONE RTFA? (Score:3, Informative)

    by hkhito (901607) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:13AM (#14264174)
    Slashdot summary: 42 articles compared, but Oh! Wiki is 2.6 times longer on average.
    TFA (first paragraph on the page): 50 articles compared, and articles selected with very similar lengths, and some material removed (e.g. references) if necessary to make them same lengths.

  • Very nice. (Score:3, Funny)

    by blair1q (305137) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:24AM (#14264273) Journal
    I get 33% more errors, it takes me 160% more time, and random lusers on the Internet say it's a good thing...
  • what about now? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by krappie (172561) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:28AM (#14264300)
    The real question is.. did the experts reviewing the articles click "edit this page" and correct the mistakes?

    Either way, I'd like to see a repeat of the same test. They listed the articles they reviewed. Im sure the wikipedia articles are full of "0" errors now.
  • Failure modes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fermion (181285) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:34AM (#14264348) Homepage Journal
    As in many things, I feel that failure modes are much more interesting than instances of success. One can have a process that is very succesful when working, but in the failrure mode is catastrophic, then the perhaps that is not such a good process. The focus on success instead means of failure is a big reason why we have so many bad processses, and is a key method to psuh really harmful things onto unsuspecting population.

    The nice thing about britannica is that though it is imperfect, I have seen few cases of pervasive campaigns of misinformation. To avaoid this failure mode, an editor should require a writier to be broad and reference a variety of sources. Also, when we are taught to use the encyclopedia, we are taught not to use a a primary source, but merely as a starting point. For instance, few say that the encyclopedia says this or that.

    OTOH, the failure mode of wikipedia is potentially catastophic. The winners are often those who have the power to to push thier persepctive of a particular topic. This is not always the case, but since it is a probably failure mode, and since there does not appear to be an effective defense, it makes the wikipedia a much less reliable source of information, on average, than the britannica.

    In the end I think the summary is another example of sloppy science. It is not so bad, as it indicates that the wiki can be more or less trusted on the types of topics nature posted, although the wiki did have more erros, though perhaps not statistically significant. The wikipedia process absolutely has to deal with the failure modes, and should encourage authors to point to peer reviewed sources to justify their claims of science and history, and a variety of sources for current events. After all, if everything comes from the weekly world news, we cannot expect much overall accuracy.

  • by Quiet_Desperation (858215) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:35AM (#14264370)
    If you're doing any kind of information/knowledge search, you never rely on a single source anyway. Unless you're a journalist.
  • Participation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by shaitand (626655) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:47AM (#14264474) Journal
    Did the experts correct the errors? I hope so.
    • Re:Participation (Score:3, Informative)

      by IdahoEv (195056)
      RTFA: it was a blind review. The experts were given printouts of the text of both articles, and weren't told what the source was.
  • by Rydia (556444) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:54AM (#14264526)
    Part of the problem with this study is its subject matter; science-related articles are by and large cut and dry, and only common misconceptions usually are introduced. While one could say this exonerates wikipedia, I'm pretty sure this doesn't say a whole lot. Another problem is that they consider an "omission" an inaccuracy. That doesn't seem like a good standard to hold either publication to.

    What about biographies, the pieces more often cited as innacurate? Or political pieces? Or any subject that has any controversy, really.

    While it's nice to see that wikipedia is only slightly worse off in science, as the article said, it's still in general poorly written and still contains more errors than brittanica in the least error-prone subject. Hardly a vote of confidence.
  • by wrook (134116) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:57AM (#14264569) Homepage
    I was thinking something like:

    In many of the more relaxed areas of the Internet, Wikipedia has long supplanted the great Encyclopedia Britanica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older more pedestrian work in two important respects.

    First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words Don't Panic! printed in large friendly letters on its cover.

    Well, OK... except for the Don't Panic part...
  • by Acy James Stapp (1005) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @10:57AM (#14264574)
    From the results page at http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/multimedia/ 438900a_m1.html [nature.com]

    "All entries were chosen to be approximately the same length in both encyclopaedias."

    Are you all idiots? I guess I don't really need to ask that question.
  • I compared the information about Barbara McClintock [nobelprize.org], the Nobel Prize winner, in the Encyclopedia Britannica with that found elsewhere on the Internet.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica article [britannica.com] was not inaccurate. It was, however, extremely misleading. It was worse than worthless, since it gave the idea that Barbara McClintock's achievements were much less valuable and extensive than they actually are. After many years and much progress in Biology, her work is still valuable. A copy of her papers requires 80 feet of shelf space!

    The Wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] is far, far better than the one in the full Encyclopedia Britannica.

    No space-limited, profit-oriented publication can compare to internet research, for most topics. I don't think that Encyclopedia Britannica has anything against Barbara McClintock, but the company must decide how much paper they want to buy.
  • by ThinkFr33ly (902481) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @11:25AM (#14264835)
    Seems to me that science articles might not be the place category of articles to use to judge the accuracy of Wikipedia. I suspect that most people contributing to the science articles have a pretty good knowledge of the subjects in question... they're not things that most people know a lot about. Acheulean industry? Kinetic isotope effect? Meliaceae? Huh?

    Where I suspect more errors abound in wikipedia is in the articles about things that a lot of people think they know a lot about, but in fact don't have any idea what they're talking about. Or topics in which people have a vested interest in misinforming people. (Political topics, for example.)

    Honestly, a better comparison would have been a sampling of 100 or so randomly selected entries. Confining it to just science articles seems like an attempt to misrepresent the accuracy of wikipedia.
  • by wcrowe (94389) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @11:33AM (#14264905)
    In fact, accuracy is not really so much the problem as objectivity. With a non controversial topic, such as the scientific topics mentioned, Wikipedia's accuracy is quite good (it would be hard to "spin" gallium, say). And the level of detail you can get with a Wikipedia article can sometimes be overwhelming.

    OTOH, when you get into topics that are controversial, most of the people who are driven to write about it feel passionately about the topic one way or another. In this way, objectivity flies out the window, and it is possible for inaccuracies to abound.

    It is wrong to make blanket statements concerning Wikipedia's accuracy. Like information on the WWW in general, sometimes it is very accurate, sometimes it is not. Either way, you have to be amazed at how exhaustive it can be... something Britannica will never achieve.

    In our current zeitgeist of moral relativism I am surprised that so many people are up in arms over the accuracy of Wikipedia articles.

  • by matt me (850665) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @11:49AM (#14265062)
    Did those experts having found those errors correct them? If not, why not? What Wikipedia needs is more expert contributors. I can add a little to articles I'm researching, but what is most helpful is when someone who knows more than most about a subject can work on those articles.
  • by tgibbs (83782) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @06:12PM (#14268351)
    Given the choice, I'd send a student to Wikipedia over Britanica.

    The biggest problem with an "authoritative source" like Britanica, is that people--especially students--are tempted to take it as a final authority. But Britanica is not infallible, and even when it is correct, it is often superficial. People are tempted to settle for predigested opinions instead of forming their own

    I think that the vulnerability of Wikipedia is in some respects a good thing, because it inculcates good research habits. I don't take Wikipedia as a final authority on anything, because I know that any given article might have been edited by a crackpot or an ideologue. Quote Wikipedia as an authority in a debate, and people will laugh at you. But I find Wikipedia extremely useful as a starting point for research; I just confirm anything important from primary sources--something that you should be doing this even if you use Britanica.
  • by dave1g (680091) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @07:54PM (#14269009) Journal
    Many times when I read a news story and I find it interesting I will check wikipedia to see if I can add some new info from the article to the entry there.

    Ony once had the new bleeding edge research not already been nicely integrated into the current article and sourced with a link to the academic paper or article.
  • by AFCArchvile (221494) on Thursday December 15, 2005 @08:28PM (#14269168)
    The Register had a letters section [theregister.co.uk] with people citing numerous errors. Among one of them was a former Data General product manager who wrote in his blog [blogspot.com] about the "howling factual errors" in the Wikipedia entry for the AViiON server line.

    Among the errors is the origin of the OS that the servers ran, a System V variant called DG/UX. From the cited incorrect version [wikipedia.org] (22 July 2005):

    The first systems in the series were released in the summer of 1989, followed by a series of speed-bumped versions over the next few years. All of these systems ran a version of System V Unix written for them by Santa Cruz Operation, known as DG/UX, to which they added NUMA support.

    And in the current version [wikipedia.org]:

    The machines ran a System V Unix variant known as DG/UX, largely developed at the company's Research Triangle Park facility. DG/UX had previously run on the company's family of MV/Eclipse 32-bit minicomputers (the successors to Nova and the 16-bit Eclipse minis) but only in a very secondary role to the MV/Eclispse mainstay AOS/VS and AOS/VS II operating systems.

    Night and day. And there was more (quote from the Register letters article):

    "It's also interesting to observe in the main Data General [wikipedia.org] article how many "futzing around" edits there are. A link polished here, a comma there, etc. Yet this article as a whole is incredibly poorly organized with no real narrative flow. And what storyline exists is wrong in significant ways; it's not even internally consistent," he writes.

    "The whole lock-in or no lock-in paragraph is 75% nonsense (it seems to imply that DG went to Unix because it couldn't afford to develop a SQL database? Yet, further down the article correctly notes that DG HAD a SQL database already.) The AViiON section mixes timeframes and contains multiple out-and-out errors, etc. (I suspect that the first couple of sections source their information largely from Soul of A New Machine and seem fairly accurate and cogent, but then it falls apart.) But that would all take work and expertise to fix."

    "Easier to twiddle than create," he concludes.

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