Belatedly, Britannica lambastes Wikipedia findings

A December report compared Wikipedia favorably with the old-school encyclopedia. Now Britannica says, not so fast.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
Encyclopedia Britannica has reopened the debate over how its accuracy stacks up against that of its online rival, Wikipedia.

The publisher of the venerable encyclopedia this week released a scathing 20-page rebuttal to a December article in the journal Nature that tallied errors in both Britannica and Wikipedia and found that the Web upstart more than held its own. The experts who reviewed comparable entries found 162 factual errors, omissions or misleading statements for Wikipedia, compared with 123 for Brittanica.

The article was widely seen as a validation of Wikipedia's content and methods. The Internet, meanwhile, has made the Encyclopedia Britannica an endangered species.

The Britannica retort criticized both the techniques Nature used in its comparison and the manner in which the assessment was presented to readers. It also demanded a public retraction. (Click here for a PDF of the 20-page report.)

According to Britannica, Nature sent out re-edited, rearranged and truncated versions of Britannica entries to reviewers and included samples that were not even from its encyclopedia texts. Britannica also accuses Nature editors of failing to verify its reviewers' findings of inaccuracy, saying that in many cases the findings were scientifically or factually wrong.

For example, one reviewer in the Nature article said that Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar's "Principles of Stellar Dynamics" was published in 1943, not 1942 as its Britannica entry states. Britannica disputes the charge, citing the Library of Congress as its primary source.

"This study has been cited all over the world, and it's invalid," Dale Hoiberg, Britannica's editor in chief, said in a statement. "We have never claimed that Britannica is error-free, but Nature attributed to us dozens of inaccuracies that simply were not inaccuracies at all. We practice strong scholarship, reasoned judgment, and continuous editorial review, and we publish a reliable, high-quality encyclopedia. By its flawed analysis and false accusations, Nature did us a great disservice."

The Nature article came out at a critical time for Wikipedia, whose credibility had been very publicly called into question. Most notably, it was under attack for an entry on John Siegenthaler that erroneously linked the journalist and former Washington insider to a pair of assassinations.

Where Britannica and other traditional encyclopedias tap subject matter experts to produce articles in a closed editorial system, Wikipedia entries can be created and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has long maintained that the site's accuracy is ensured through self-policing by its readers and contributors.

Wikipedia also happens to be completely free. Britannica offers some limited free content and a free 7-day trial to full entries, but unlimited access to full entries is $11.95 per month or $69.95 per year. To justify those fees, Britannica depends on its academic credentials and reputation for accuracy.

Nature answered the charges this week in a statement indicating no remorse and reaffirming its original assessment. "We reject those accusations, and are confident our comparison was fair," the publication said.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia's burgeoning status on the Internet continues apace. Earlier this month, its publisher, the Wikimedia Foundation, reported the addition of the 1 millionth article to the English-language version of Wikipedia.