Problems Sprout For Nature Over Wikipedia

    March 24, 2006
    WebProNews Staff

The Encyclopedia Brittanica has expressed its extreme displeasure with the Nature science journal over its comparison of Britannica to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is just as good as Brittanica, so the story goes. At minimum, Nature had described Wikipedia content as “no more unreliable” than that in the venerable Brittanica. Now it has been suggested in The Register by Brittanica that Nature’s research leaves much to be desired:

“Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading,” says Britannica.

“Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.”

Nature reported that of the 50 articles it sent to independent experts, Brittanica’s had 123 errors to Wikipedia’s 162. Some of the errors were differences of opinion instead of mistakes, Brittanica also claimed:

“Dozens of the so-called inaccuracies they attributed to us were nothing of the kind; they were the result of reviewers expressing opinions that differed from ours about what should be included in an encyclopedia article. In these cases Britannica’s coverage was actually sound.”

Nature’s choice to run the article without noting how it differed in preparation from the academic work it usually presents probably has caused the most problems. RoughType blogger Nicholas Carr posted in February about discovering that detail:

I found that it was something less than I had expected. It is not one of the peer-reviewed, expert-written research articles for which the journal is renowned. (UPDATE: I confirmed this with the article’s author, Jim Giles. In an e-mail to me, he wrote, “The article appeared in the news section and is a piece of journalism, so it did not go through the normal peer review process that we use when considering academic papers.”) Rather, it’s a fairly short, staff-written piece based on an informal survey carried out by a group of Nature reporters.

Ultimately, Carr observed just how Wikipedia could be a much better source of information, if it followed the open source model more rigorously:

The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.


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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.