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Britannica Attacks - Nature Returns Fire 217

Posted by Hemos
from the of-course-one-island-loses-to-nature dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Just in case you missed it, Nature has replied to Britannica's criticism of the Nature Britannica-Wikipedia comparison. I think it is fair to say Nature is not sympathetic to Britannica's complaints." The original piece regarding the accuracy comparison, along with the response from Britannica.
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Britannica Attacks - Nature Returns Fire

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  • by Eccles (932) on Monday April 03, 2006 @06:56AM (#15048993) Journal
    I want to fix the spelling error "comparasion".

    • by ajs (35943) <ajs AT ajs DOT com> on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:30AM (#15049112) Homepage Journal
      The key point in all of this is that the study was done blind. Reviewers did not know (though they COULD have checked) which source their article was from. Wikipedia showed more errors, but only 33% more per article than Brittanica at the rate of 4 per. Wikipedia is an astounding resource, and I think it moves Brittanica into a secondary role. What I would find very interesting would be a Brittanica effort to copy-edit, fact-check, and release a dead-tree Wikipedia (based on featured articles and whatever others are needed for context). I know I'd buy it!
      • by jlar (584848) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:49AM (#15049553)
        "The key point in all of this is that the study was done blind. Reviewers did not know (though they COULD have checked) which source their article was from. Wikipedia showed more errors, but only 33% more per article than Brittanica at the rate of 4 per."

        The 33% does not make much sense if we do not know the number of articles that we wrongly found to contain errors - even if the study was done blind.

        My point is that if for example these false errors constitute one per article for both Wikipedia and Brittanica, then the difference would suddenly be 50% (2 errors per Brittanica article and 3 errors per Wikipedia art.).

        In my opinion Nature has not refuted the critique against the study until they have quantified the number of false positives. Without this number they have no basis for claiming that "...the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three."
    • by jokestress (837997) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:50AM (#15049200)
      Here's my favorite comparison:

      Wikipedia on Britannica [wikipedia.org]

      vs.

      Britannica on Wikipedia [britannica.com]

      • This isn't funny, its the most informative post on this story I've seen.

        From Wikipedia, "The Britannica was an important early English-language general encyclopedia and is still regarded as one of the most important reference books in the English language". About 2 pages of text at 1024x768 with a lively history and current direction the privately held company is heading.

        Britannica, not a single word on perhaps the most important contribution to encyclopedia since Britannica. In a word disturbing.

        Ho

  • by Whiney Mac Fanboy (963289) * <whineymacfanboy@gmail.com> on Monday April 03, 2006 @06:59AM (#15049003) Homepage Journal
    It's really becoming clear reading the article (to me, and probably to Britannica) that the writing is on the wall. Take this quote from the article:

    "Other objections are simply incorrect. The company has, for example, claimed that in one case we sent a reviewer material that did not come from any Britannica publication."

    That - right there is Brittanica getting desperate & flailing around attempting to attack anyone who criticizes them. Note - I don't think Wikipedia is going to 'take over' from Brittanica, its merely one of the many sources (albeit, currently the most important) you can turn to for free, online information.

    The niche that Brittanica used to fill is simply closing - I suggest Brittanica concentrates on expanding its scope rather then attacking criticism if it wants to survive in future.
    • by benito27uk (646600) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:33AM (#15049126)
      It's not 'flailing around attempting to attack anyone who criticizes them'. Britannica's argument is that Nature were selective in their use of articles from Britannica

      In one of the case's, the encyclopedia britannica claims that Nature used a 350 word introduction rather than the full 6000 word article on Lipids. If this is true I would say they have good reason to criticise Nature's article on the relevant merits of both encyclopedias.

      Nature has been remarkably reticent in allowing anyone to see the unabridged reviewer reports to enable readers to make their own judgements, part of their own response to Britannica's allegations states that they 'provided reviewers with chosen excerpts, not full articles; this was done with entries from both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. www.nature.com [nature.com] Making such arbritary decisions, and not detailing this in the original article is not what is expected of such a respectable publication

      • 'provided reviewers with chosen excerpts, not full articles; this was done with entries from both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia.['] www.nature.com Making such arbritary decisions, and not detailing this in the original article is not what is expected of such a respectable publication

        The article you link to refutes your point.

        But this applied as much to criticisms of Wikipedia as of Encyclopaedia Britannica.Because the reviewers were blind to the source of the material they were evaluating, and ma
        • Agreed, but Nature's original article stated "Then we weeded out the terms that did not have any entry in Britannica (they all appeared in Wikipedia), and any for which the entries were vastly different in length. Sometimes the lengths were balanced by amalgamating two or three Britannica entries into one coherent piece" www.nature.com [nature.com]

          Now that's a very different statement than the one they brought out in response to Britannia's allegations that talks about 'chosen excerpts'. I don't think most people wo

    • I actually disagree. I can't see how Britannica can out-scope Wiki. What they can do is out quality them on things like organization and consistent level of difficulty. I think they should focus on better integration with their self study materials.
       
    • The niche that Brittanica used to fill is simply closing - I suggest Brittanica concentrates on expanding its scope rather then attacking criticism if it wants to survive in future.

      Indeed. Nevertheless it ought to be said that a product - and a business model - which survives for 240 years has done pretty well. Nothing lasts forever. Brittanica may have had its day, but it was a good long day while it lasted.

  • by jellomizer (103300) * on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:00AM (#15049005)
    I had to RTFM just to make since out of the headline. It would have been nice if they mentioned that Nature was the magazine. I thought there was some disagreement between Britannica and Wikipedia description of nature then Nature herself set Britannica on fire. But it made me RTFM so I guess it worked.
  • by DrXym (126579) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:00AM (#15049007)
    Britannica is authorative, peer reviewed and reliable but it costs money. Wikipedia can be spotty but is generally authorative, peer (+ idiot) reviewed and mostly reliable. It costs nothing but has massively more articles and can turn on a dime to cover current events, weather, popular culture etc.. While I feel sorry for Britannica, the simple fact is that most people are not going to fork a pile of cash when Wikipedia is good enough for day to day use.
    • Good comment.

      If I was in a workplace and needed to research something, chances are that I wouldn't use EB, because I'd want more specific detail than an encyclopedia could give me.

      Wikipedia quite often gives me enough to then go searching more of Google.

      • Wikipedia quite often gives me enough to then go searching more of Google.
        I heartily concur.

        9 times out of ten, the biggest problem (when I'm having a problem finding information) is that I don't know the specific technical terms to search for.

        Sometimes that little detail can stymie even the best searchers if they're looking around in unfamiliar territory.
      • Wikipedia quite often gives me enough to then go searching more of Google.

        And in some cases had direct links to more authoritative and in-depth info right on the page. No need to even go to Google.
    • by Moby Cock (771358) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:40AM (#15049152) Homepage
      I agree with you 100%. I had a discussion on this very topic last week with some friends. One of them was concerned that Wikipedia will eventually cause Britannia (and the others) to be pushed out of business and when she does need more and better info than Wikipedia can provide there will be no other sources. An interesting thought.

      What if research libraries no longer have for-profit encyclopedias?

      After some though we realised that encyclopedias are not really primary references anyway. Wikipedia is good enough (even with jackasses vandalising pages) to get you to the proper primary references to continue research and as such serves its function weel. It is certainly good enough to settle day-to-day curioisity and is an excellen primer for more detailed research.

      Send a donation to Wikipedia, they deserve a little love.
      • One of them was concerned that Wikipedia will eventually cause Britannia (and the others) to be pushed out of business and when she does need more and better info than Wikipedia can provide there will be no other sources.

        ARRR!!!! England shall prevail! The Union Jack shalt never set down, you miserable liberal hippie scumbag! x-(
    • I'll go further than that. I'm regular customer of Britannica's. In the last few years I've bought:

      4 of their education DVDs
      their latest adult encyclopedia on DVD
      Their CDROM children's homework helper
      2 almanacs
      2 different young children's encyclopedia in book form
      and probably a few others I can't think of right now
      and I think this year I'm buying their next DVD encyclopedia so I can get an update

      I do fork over the cash. I still use Wikipedia most of the time. No question Britannica has higher quality bu
    • by hey! (33014) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:13AM (#15049339) Homepage Journal
      Wikipedia can be spotty but is generally authorative

      Authoritative is exactly what the wikipedia is not.

      Authoritative doesn't mean "accurate", nor does it mean "informative", although these qualities contribute to authoritativeness. But to say a source is "authoritative" means it can be cited, and what makes a source citable is predictability. Authorities have their own biases, but at least those biases are documentable and predictable. If one looks at a nineteenth century Britannica for an article on colonialism, their bias is going to be fairly predictable. With Wikipedia, you might end up with a better, more informative, less biased article. Or you might end up with propaganda from one side or the other of an issue. Furthermore which side you get may depend on the day you look.

      Of course in practice this is less of an issue than it would seem. Hot button issues, may be Wikipedia's greatest strength, because many eyeballs expose the review process to the reader. However articles on obscure people or issues are unreliable in the extreme.

      I've often said that Wikipedia would be an excellent platform on which to create an authoritative source. Since it's possible to track every version and change to an article, all one needs to do is keep a database of "reviewed and accepted" articles to make your own purpose specific Wikipedia. For example, you could include this version [wikipedia.org] of the George W Bush article in your database if you prefer the negative slant of the article lead. Then all anybody has to do is compare the version in your database to the version preferred by another group, e.g. like this [wikipedia.org], to know where your slant is.
      • But to say a source is "authoritative" means it can be cited,

        Then by that measure Britannica is not authoritative either. No scholar would cite it. I couldn't even cite encyclopedias in high school.

  • by gihan_ripper (785510) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:01AM (#15049011) Homepage
    I think it's amusing that an established publication (Britannica) is worried about another established and peer-reviewed publication (Nature) making favourable comparisons with Wikipedia. We should now see Britannica write about the similarities between Nature and the arXiv [lanl.gov]!
  • Um, what? (Score:5, Funny)

    by KDR_11k (778916) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:02AM (#15049013)
    Did Britain reestablish the Empire, increase their greenhouse gas production and get wiped out by a natural desaster? Are two hacker groups accusing each other? Is this some Ultima fan-fiction? What the hell is this story about?
  • by neoshroom (324937) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:02AM (#15049014)
    Wikipedia is so much better than Britanica in so many ways. For example if you look up Allentown, Pennsylvania it tells me, "The city also is somewhat known for a Billy Joel song, "Allentown," which appeared on Joel's "The Nylon Curtain" (1982) and "Greatest Hits: Volume II" (1985) albums. The song depicts the resolve of Allentonians, amidst the rough and hardened life that characterizes this East Coast, industrial city. "Allentown" also references nearby Bethlehem, home of the then-declining (and now defunct) Bethlehem Steel Corporation." While this may not be a fact that is highbrow enough for inclusion in Britannica, this is actually one of the things I think of when I think of that city -- making it much more useful to me on a practical level.

    Or in other words:

    Here's what the Encyclopedia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colorless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms.

    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. It says that the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.

    Thats the difference.
    --
    Elephant Essays [elephantessays.com] - Custom-created essays and research papers.

    • by kalidasa (577403) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:15AM (#15049049) Journal

      Not sure that you really want to hold up the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a paragon of accuracy. Keep in mind that

      Entries tend to get updated or not across the Sub-Etha Net according to if they read good.

      Take for example, the case of Brequinda on the Foth of Avalars, famed in myth, legend and stultifyingly dull tri-d mini-serieses as home of the magnificent and magical Fuolornis Fire Dragon.

      [snip]

      Not surprisingly, the Guide's graphically enticing description of the general state of affairs on this planet has proved to be astonishingly popular amongst hitch-hikers who allow themselves to be guided by it, and so it has simply never been taken out, and it is therefore left to latter-day travellers to find out for themselves that today's modern Brequinda in the City State of Avalars is now little more than concrete, strip joints and Dragon Burger Bars.

      • Not sure that you really want to hold up the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a paragon of accuracy.

        The point was not to hold up the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a paragon of accuracy...

        Entries tend to get updated or not across the Sub-Etha Net according to if they read good.

        Take for example, the case of Brequinda on the Foth of Avalars, famed in myth, legend and stultifyingly dull tri-d mini-serieses as home of the magnificent and magical Fuolornis Fire Dragon.

        [snip]

        Not surprisingly, the

      • LOL. That was an extremely academic response that made a point using a deeply authoritative source.

        Here's a link to the entire article: Chapter 22 - Life, the Universe, and Everything [injustice.net.nz].

        And, another quote: "Where you would be wrong would be in failing to realize that the editor, like all the editors of the Guide has ever had, has no real grasp of the meanings of the words "scrupulous", "conscientious" or "diligent", and tends to get his nightmares through a straw."
    • I think of Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom when I think of Allentown.
    • Too right!

      There is a difference between factually correct and useful. The Wikipedia errs on the side of useful, that's why you find many more current references and interesting connections.

      I happen to have both on my computer. Encyclopaedia Britannica is sitting up there as an icon on my desktop, but I've only opened it twice in the time I've had it (and the first was to see it was working). Wikipedia gets looked at more than twice a week.

      Until the Encyclopaedia Britannica people can deliver a service

    • by constantnormal (512494) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:57AM (#15049238)
      Interestingly enough, Douglas Adams penned this comparison of the Encyclopedia Galactica to The Hitchhiker's Guide in the BBC radio script for the origian radio broadcast of it in 1978, long before the existence of the public internet, portable computers or the WWW.

      Whoda thunk that The Encyclopedia Britannica would be compared to Wikipedia in such an eerily similar manner, almost 30 years later?

      And for a final bit of recursive irony, I discovered that nugget of information by searching the Wikipedia for "The HitchHicker's Guide to the Galaxy" [wikipedia.org].

      Just try to extract the same information from Britannica Online.

    • The pop-culture references in Wikipedia are often relevant, but they sometimes also detract from the main article.

      If you look up the article on Penguins [wikipedia.org], about half the article consists of pop-culture references. Does the main article on penguins need to mention that Sega made a 1982 game called "Pengo", or that there is a non-canonical Doctor Who comic-strip character who is a penguin?

      Why does the article on Beethoven's Symphony Number 9 [wikipedia.org] need to mention that "the anime Gunslinger Girl used the fourth movem
  • by MrChom (609572) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:02AM (#15049015) Homepage
    It's the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy versus Encyclopedia Galactica all over again...
    • It's the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy versus Encyclopedia Galactica all over again...

      A snapshot of wikipedia from 1000 years in the future is thought to have defined the sco corporation as a bunch of mindless idiots who were the first against the wall when the revolution came.

  • by digitaldc (879047) * on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:16AM (#15049054)
    Looks like someone is mad because you don't have to PAY for their services any more.

    Britannica should justify why people SHOULD pay for their product, rather than argue with their free competitors.
  • by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:17AM (#15049057)
    Which is the better resource? Let's see:

    Star Wars Christmas Special .... Wiki yes, Brit No
    History of Robocop ............. Wiki yes, Brit No
    Doctor Who ..................... Wiki yes, Brit yes
    Dr Who, info on the 3rd Doc contracting radiation poisoning on the planet Metebelis 3. Wiki yes, Brit no
  • by this great guy (922511) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:17AM (#15049058)

    I can't wait for Britannica's reply to Nature's reply about Britannica's criticism of the Nature Britannica-Wikipedia comparison !

  • Self defense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dekortage (697532) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:21AM (#15049070) Homepage

    From the original Britannica "attack": In its December 15, 2005, issue, the science journal Naturepublished an article that claimed to compare the accuracy of the online Encyclopaedia Britannica with Wikipedia, the Internet database that allows anyone, regardless of knowledge or qualifications, to write and edit articles on any subject. (emphasis added by me)

    Does anyone think this isn't just Britannica watching its business get clobbered by an online startup, and trying to defend itself? Old guard versus young upstart. Britannica should just buy Wikipedia and maintain both, and just market them differently.

    For what it's worth, there appears to be over 6,500 articles [wikipedia.org] on Wikipedia that use Britannica as a reference, which suggests that the folks writing Wikipidia consider Britannica as a reliable source of information. (Not surprisingly, you cannot find Wikipedia in Britannica [britannica.com].)

    Finally, there is one possible problem with the Nature investigation... the question is not total accuracy at one point in time, but overall accuracy over a long period of time. Wikipedia is constantly changing; Britannica is less frequently updated. What does this mean for a researcher? Has Wikipedia been a reliable research tool for the last 365 days, just as Britannica has been?

    • They can buy the name, but not the content as it is free. They could just as well just download a database dump and run it through their peer-review system.
    • Re:Self defense (Score:2, Interesting)

      by 16K Ram Pack (690082)
      Has Wikipedia been a reliable research tool for the last 365 days, just as Britannica has been?

      That depends. When the DJ John Peel died, it was on Wikipedia as soon as I'd heard. Naomi Campbell's recent arrest is listed in her Wikipedia Bio.

      For me, it's also about the sheer volume of Wikipedia. Does Britannica have entries on bands like The Secret Machines, or the Dogme 95 cinema movement, the Cloudy Bay vineyard or the village of Pewsey?

      I wish there was a better editing mechanism, particularly to kee

    • > Britannica should just buy Wikipedia and maintain both [...]

      From the Wikimedia Foundation Bylaws [wikimediafoundation.org].

      ARTICLE VII: DEDICATION OF ASSETS

      The property of this corporation is irrevocably dedicated to charitable purposes and no part of the net income or assets of this corporation shall ever inure to the benefit of any director, officer or members thereof or to the benefit of any private individual.

      In general you can't just buy a non-profit organization and if you could you can't turn around and make

      • I wasn't suggesting that Britannica would profit directly from Wikipedia. In fact, if Britannica acquired Wikipedia, I hope they would keep it basically intact.

        Some benefits to Britannica of acquiring Wikipedia might be: (a) having a voice and brand presence in the next generation of academic research tools; (b) having a freely-market-driven source of hot topics and interesting new ideas to be possibly included in the next revision of Britannica; (c) having a freely-market-driven tool for identifying new

  • by QuietLagoon (813062) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:22AM (#15049073)
    I like how Nature dodged the issue regarding the ethanol review. Notice how they did not say they added non-Britannica materials to the items being reviewed, Nature only said that the paragraphs cited by the reviewer were sourced from Britannica. This side-stepping of the actual issue raised by Britannica raises more concerns that it resolves.

    Why was Nature mixing Britannica and non-Britannica materials together for the reviewer? Was the intent to place the Britannica materials in a certain, and erroneous, context so that the reviewers would be led to an incorrect interpretation?

    The more that surfaces about Nature's tactics (and possibly strategy) here, the more suspicious Nature's intentions look.

    Was there any coverage here on /. of Britannica's rebuttal a week or so ago? I must have missed it.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:35AM (#15049135)
      I'd like to point out something even more disturbing. When Nature was originally questioned they released a MS WORD file. In the file they claimed that they chose articles of same length:

        http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/ex tref/438900a-s1.doc [nature.com]
        "Only entries that were approximately the same length in both encyclopaedias were selected."

      But when Britannica disputed this, nature replied:

        http://www.nature.com/press_releases/Britannica_re sponse.pdf [nature.com]
        "In a small number of cases, to ensure comparable lengths,
          we provided reviewers with chosen excerpts, not full
          articles"

      That's the smoking gun, they were not truthful about this.

      But this is absolutely devastating:

      One Nature reviewer was sent only the 350-word introduction to Encyclopædia Britannica's
      6,000-word article on lipids. For Nature to have represented Britannica's extensive coverage of
      the subject with this short squib was absurd, and it invalidated the findings of omissions
      alleged by the reviewer, since those matters were covered in sections of the article he or she
      never saw.

      As much as I love wikipedia, Nature should save it's integrity and retract the article!
      • That was a good critique. Get an account.
      • by LurkerXXX (667952) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:58AM (#15049609)
        Right you are.

        Especially troubling to see was the quote from Nature justifying that they had done a good job "And of the 123 purported errors in question, Britannica takes issue with fewer than half."

        Ok, I'm a Ph.D. research scientist. I've published papers. I can tell you right now, if I submit a paper to Nature and the reviewers have doubts about "fewer than half my data", there is no freaking way in hell that my paper is going to get published. Seriously. I can't believe that part of the defense from a scientific publication is that "less than half" of it's data was called into question.

        I'm horribly disappointed in Nature. It's considered the top (or one of the very top) scientific journals. Keeping the actual raw data hidden, and these strange defenses of what appears to be a very very flawed study method is far below the level of journalism that they should hold themselves to.

        • Amen. When I was in grad school, my advisor wouldn't have even let me try *submitting* work that shoddy to Nature. Let alone get it published.

          Nature should get out of the business of editorializing. I just skip straight to the back these days.

      • by The Cydonian (603441) on Monday April 03, 2006 @10:12AM (#15050231) Homepage Journal
        Absolutely.

        In fact, I'll even say this:- contrary to the general expectation out here, the whole point of this debate is not to gauge either Wikipedia's or Brittanica's reliability, but Nature's, and I'm afraid the magazine's half-hearted response, for reasons you've stated among many other rthings, has in no way been even remotely satisfactory.

    • I agree with you completely, and with my fellow child post.

      As for the response, no, it wasn't. I submitted a story about it that el reg ran, and it got rejected. That, along with all the predictable responses in this thread, illustrates rather well that people don't give a damn about figuring out what mode is a better solution for information disemination, and rather will simply yell and scream when their golden calf is attacked, regardless of how deserved that attack is.
      • As for the response, no, it wasn't. I submitted a story about it that el reg ran, and it got rejected.

        I submitted that story also, and it was rejected as well.

        It seems that those who are so in favor of WikiPedia are also in favor of suppressing any articles here that say anything but WikiPedia is wonderful.

        That alone should cast a long shadow of concern upon WikiPedia and its supporters.

  • by AndroidCat (229562) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:26AM (#15049095) Homepage
    02:57, April 3, 2006 Nature (rv. we've been through this a thousand times already and consensus is against you, so stop doing this)
    00:51, April 3, 2006 Britannica (Basic concepts of Review - removed the OR, cleaned up the stating of the word history as spelled out in Terra Incognita)
    00:37, April 3, 2006 Nature m (rv ...or it's "original research" or it's "a self-reference" or whatever your excuse du jour is. Uh uh.)
    00:14, April 3, 2006 Britannica (removed redundant disambiguation and restated the first sentence. Comparison has ideas but is an activity. See discussion page)
    15:48, April 1, 2006 FactsGuy (RV another of Britannica's anti-consensus, POV, ill-written revisions. Britannica, please stop doing this!)
    15:12, April 1, 2006 Britannica (Basic concepts of comparison - removed the OR, "may have been inspired by" because that is someone's conjection and OR conclusion and not cited here)
  • Urgh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by squiggleslash (241428) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:31AM (#15049114) Homepage Journal
    I read Britannica's "response" and must admit I nearly stopped reading after the following:
    Anyone who read the article with even a modicum of care would have noticed a discrepancy between the headline and the data themselves. While the heading proclaimed that "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries," the numbers buried deep in the body of the article said precisely the opposite: Wikipedia in fact had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica.
    This is changing the subject. Instead of measuring accuracies, as the headline does, Britannica finds a way of slanting the information, by using "inaccuracies", a figure that is a smaller percentage, to make it look like Wikipedia is awful in comparison. This, to me, undermines Britannica's credibility far more than anything Nature may or may not have "proven". It suggests they can't even fact check their own responses to comments about accuracy, or else are deliberately trying to mislead.

    For those who are looking at the above wondering "Huh?", remember that if one person has three errors, and the other has four, then the other has "a third more errors" than the first. That means the difference between 96% and 97% accurate is "a third more errors" - but most people would look at the two figures and, rightly, say they're very close. In Nature's case, the headline appears to be accurate, and Britannica, in suggesting otherwise on this basis, is engaging in sophistry.

    Britannica then goes on to claim many of the facts Nature depended upon were false. That may be true, but claims like the above suggest Britannica itself is more than willing to massage the facts, and for an organization that's dependent upon its own credibility, that's actually devastating.

    • Re:Urgh (Score:2, Funny)

      Wikipedia should now claim that they came in second in a ranking of online accuracy, while Brittanica came in next to last.
    • Re:Urgh to you too (Score:4, Insightful)

      by blank101 (862789) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:37AM (#15049464) Journal
      I agree that Britannica's comments are disingenuous at best, but they are not wrong. What's wrong is having a discussion at this level of detail.

      To address your point directly, there is no discussion of error/accuracy/inaccuracy percentages, as such a measure is implausible. Would one count the number of facts and then state what percent are erroneous? Then who decides what in an article counts as a "fact" (and no, I'm not proposing relativism for truth)? Should all facts be given equal weight (e.g., is having the 5th decimal place wrong comparable to having the wrong stochiometric balance)? Since there is no logical framework to discuss these questions (and frankly, I can't see it would be worthwhile to do so), the only thing that can be studied scientifically (in the strict sense of the word) is error-rate and even that is misleading (as there is no ready way to compare magnitude of error).

      Thus, Nature was wrong (both in the semantic and practical sense) in its headline. I would have preferred the title "Wikipedia-Britannica Error-Rate Comparison," followed by the data, some statistical analysis, and qualifications about the inadequacy of the comparison (but then, no one likes to admit that what they've done doesn't really get to the heart of the issue).

      There are plenty of engineering-like judgements to be drawn about the practicality of Wikipedia over Britannica (given the cost difference and acceptably comparable error-rate/magnitude for day-to-day use), indeed any /. discussion re: wikipedia makes them. And therein lies the rub; Britannica is certainly right to attack on the details (which as I illustrated are somewhat non-sensical), but the details are largely irrelevant to the real point of the discussion (and shame on Nature for not emphasizing that).

      • An error-rate IS a percentage.

        If we were to use a non-percentage error metric I can easily write a reference source that beats the hell out of Britannica and Wikipedia. It goes like this:

        1+1 = 2

        You absolutely have to consider both the amount of content, and the number of errors. This is the percentage of errors.

        Now it's non trivial to do this in a purely objective way, but that doesn't make the task hopeless, it just means you have to do your studies carefully.

        And if Nature did it double-blind, that's ha
        • by rk (6314) *

          $ python
          Python 2.3.5 (#1, Aug 22 2005, 22:13:23)
          [GCC 3.3 20030304 (Apple Computer, Inc. build 1809)] on darwin
          Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
          >>> 1 + 1 = 2
          SyntaxError: can't assign to operator
          >>>

          $ cat test.c
          int main() {
          1+1=2;
          return;
          }
          $ gcc -o test test.c
          test.c: In function 'main':
          test.c:2: error: invalid lvalue in assignment

          Sorry, you lose. :-)

    • Yes, it's ugly what stupidity they've resorted to, but it's not surprising. What we're witnessing is the flip/flopping of a dying industry that has been murdered (or at least severely wounded) by new technology. These people used to have a stranglehold on a particular niche market and their jobs were secure in the Britannica trademark, so long as they didn't screw up very badly.

      Suddenly their niche is disappearing and these people are stuck in a position defending their business model, which they have no
      • These people used to have a stranglehold on a particular niche market and their jobs were secure in the Britannica trademark, so long as they didn't screw up very badly.

        This is going too far.

        Brittanica did *not* have a stranglehold on the encyclopedia market prior to the advent of the web. There were real competitors, like World Book and Funk & Wagnalls. In fact, in terms of both market share and dollar sales, World Book exceeded Brittanica.

        There's no doubt that Brittanica held the pre-eminent

    • Uhhh, I think you're being misleading. This is inaccuracies per entry. Which means in 42 entries there's 126 inaccuracies vs 168 inaccuracies, which is best described by saying "1/3 more inaccuracies" not "1% less accurate." The Nature article says pretty much the same thing in its writeup:

      "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;
  • by Rand310 (264407) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:33AM (#15049129)
    This is an easily demarkated event occuring to an historic institution which illustrates the current and future cultural and intellectual climate. What Guttenberg did, in itself didn't create anything extraordinary, but it changed the order of magnitude of use of an existing technology. It allowed an order of magnitude of more readers to read what used to be expensive books (one of the more popular, and duly important is in fact the Encyclopedia Brittanica). What Wikipedia allows is an order of magnitude of more editors and commentaries to provide information (and for free). The system is not perfect, but with the help of a tuned submission and editorial procedures, Wikiepedia's abilities far outweigh the Brittanica's venerable, though glorified, trustworthiness.

    This seems to be happening on many fronts, and in many places with the advent of viral communication. But as this debate involves clear, historically relevant, as well as practically useful opponents it seems it will be pretty memorable. If you read the rebuttles to each others' works from a technologically historical perspective the arguments are interesting and can be applied to so much. And coming from two institutions which pride themselves on their intellectual merrits, such documents might be interesting to keep and look at in a few years when more and more of these same arguments pop up in less public and less known situations.

    On the other hand it seems to retain the vigor and mundanity of a nerd fight.
  • by countach (534280)
    Very weak response. Britanicca took issue with "less than half" the problems. Half is a lot! And the year book response is weak too. Nature was busted on this one. They ought to hang their heads and apologise.
  • In some ways the argument is bit irrelevant, as it is comparing apples and oranges - Wiki and Britannica are compiled in different ways and both have their uses, data in both of them is likely to be _mostly_ accurate, and I wouldn't particularly trust either of them as any more than a starting point (I prefer primary sources where possible).

    One valid point that Britannica made is that Nature should release the data (minus of course the names of the anonymous reviewers). or at least the full text of excerpts
  • by catdevnull (531283) on Monday April 03, 2006 @07:58AM (#15049244)
    Wikipedia: Almost as good as Britanica without all pseudo-intellecutal pretentions!

    Wikipedia: At Least You Can Correct Our Missteaks!

    Wikipedia: Suck It, Trebek

    Wikipedia: Nature Almost Likes Us!

    Wikipedia: 3 out of 4 Slashdotters Prefer Us!
  • by Ilgaz (86384) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:16AM (#15049352) Homepage
    The problem with Wikipedia can be easily understood if you are using Slashdot in regular basis.

    FANATICS and ZEALOTS.

    E.g. while reading an article about Apple Computer, for example recent fight with Beatles Record company, I have even seen people attacking the record company as some "crook company" "not doing anything". Erm, they own the rights of 165 million selling (just in USA!) Beatles.

    Now, that same comment owner as these are "web 2.0" fashion days must have a Wikipedia account. Somehow you may need a very critical info about Apple Computers which _should be_ neutral as it can be.

    Just imagine you read the "info" written by that person and rely on it.

    That is the problem.

    Oh BTW, IMHO Brittanica should make use of bittorrent technology and make site "totally same as the DVD set". That time, people will pay for it. People hates waiting for FedEx or DHL to deliver the freaking "plastic". That is the problem.

  • by Brushen (938011) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:35AM (#15049451)
    They said of Mendeleev's Britannica article that he was the 13th of 17 surviving children, and not the 17th. They said of Wikipedia's article that he was the 13th surviving child, and not the 17th. Britannica's error was probably due to a typographical error in the source material that they used, a New York Times article.

    Wikipedia users in January found out on the talk page, trying to make sure they used written sources to correct articles, and not just Nature's word, that in actuality, conflicting sources say that he was the 13th child, and others say he was the 14th, because historians disagree. They made a note of this in the article.

    About two and a half months later, after Wikipedia has already fixed the 'error,' Britannica comes out with the response, and does not directly admit they made an error, but goes on to disagree with Nature saying he was the 14th child, and brags about how they noted historians disagree on the issue of whether he was 13th or 14th. The new Britannica issue will be coming off the presses with the error corrected in about a year, probably. I see a lesson here.

  • Turn-Around Time (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LordLucless (582312) on Monday April 03, 2006 @08:48AM (#15049550)
    Ok, Britannica beats Wikipedia on accuracy 3-4. Now give us your corrections and see who beats who in publishing the most accurate new edition.
  • The strength of wikipedia is that if there is an error you can fix it. The study is inaccurate because one an error is discovered on wikipedia, the error should be fixed on wikipedia. An error in Britannica would need a lot more time to be reviewed and changed and published.

    Wikipedia works on the idea that there will always be errors, but they should always be easily fixable.

    So to update the study: Britannica: 142 errors, Wikipedia: 0.
    • The strength of wikipedia is that if there is an error you can fix it.

      And the same wanker who made the error can put it back immediately.

      To update the study: Britannica: 142 (most of which turned out not to be errors), Wikipedia: unknown but fluctuates by the second.

      TWW

  • Most of the EB's claims were correct and Nature is trying to distract everyone from their shabby article by crowing about a couple of points where EB were wrong. That's the sort of balanced approach that would be right at home in...say...Wikipedia.

    TWW

  • Nielsen happens to comment on this in this week's AlertBox [useit.com]. He labels the fight as "hype level: yellow", and says Nature's conclusion is misleading.

    First, while counting errors is easy, it's not sufficient for evaluating a publication's quality. Given time constraints, it's also important that a topic's coverage emphasizes the most important points so readers aren't bogged down in minutiae. Writing style and clarity matter as well, as does point of view. All of these are more a matter of editorial judgment

  • by Autochthonous Lagomo (962003) on Monday April 03, 2006 @11:16AM (#15050913)
    As someone who uses both Britannica (the software version of 2006's encyclopedia) as well as Wikipedia almost daily, I have to say that Britannica is sadly out of its league most of the time.

    Sure, every now and then I'll encounter something on Wikipedia that is blatantly biased or wrong, but 99% of the time it's updated on the talk pages.

    An example comes from a plague I was researching that devastated ancient Athens just as they were gearing up against the Spartans. Britannica is suitably vague about this, but the Wikipedia article on the subject has a great section about how, in 2005, genetic testing proved that it was typhoid fever which devastated Athens at that period. As this was the 2006 Britannica, why didn't it have that information?

    A more obvious example of Britannica being less up-to-date is in the country histories articles. They almost all stop at about 1999-2001, without addressing any of the more recent years. Again, in a 2006 publication, why should this be the case? Wikipedia trumps again.

    And lastly, people hold Britannica and other encyclopedias up higher than Wikipedia and other open-source content, but they do so erroneously. The point is, encyclopedia articles don't go through enormous peer-review, and are more likely to have errors than a non-vandalized Wikipedia article, simply because there are far fewer contributing eyes scanning the text, and far fewer people reviewing it and keeping it up to date.

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