Today Encyclopedia Britannica, Tomorrow The World?

Yesterday I received an offer I couldn’t refuse – a free infographic from Wikipedia. Here it is, complete with preface. Let’s talk about it after you’ve had a look.

Redefining Research
After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica has decided to halt the presses and go out of print. Facing the realities and the stiff competition from Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica will now focus primarily on their online services. But even then, it might be too late. Wikipedia has grown to be the number one source for students. In fact, many students will stop research and change topics if it’s not on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia provides a wealth of information with over 26 billion pages of content. Though the quality of Wikipedia has been questioned, the editors of Wikipedia, known as Wikipedians, are vigilant with ensuring the data in Wikipedia is current and accurate. Studies have even shown that Wikipedia is almost as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. This infographic highlights how Wikipedia has revolutionized research and how it has become a reliable fountain of knowledge.

Wikipedia
Via: Open-Site.org

I use Wikipedia extensively to get a basic overview of a topic, as well as linking to it by default in this blog. If I want a particular point of view, or to go deeper into a subject, I’ll choose another information source. I’m grateful to Wikipedia for making my life as a blogger so much simpler. That said, I do have some vague stirrings of anxiety. Can an article created by anonymous authors be properly authoritative?

According to the infographic, the level of inacuracies – 2.92 per article for Britannica, compared to 3.86 for Wikipedia – is fairly impressive if you consider the Britannica to be the gold standard. And the ability to quickly correct them, as opposed to having to live with mistakes in print editions, is a distinct advantage. Wikipedia say they’re making plans to “have all articles be 25% more accurate.” That would bring their level of inaccuracies to 2.895, slightly better than the Britannica.

Wikipedia also claims to be 98% as accurate as college text books (American, I presume). Excellent, if true, but you have to wonder how they compiled these statistics. It’s comforting to know that 20 colleges are helping with content and editing. Which ones? It makes a difference – there’s a wide variation in quality.

The statistics on library usage and number of books make me wonder if they’re conflating them with non-research usage. I use libraries a lot for fiction, but almost never for research, so they could be mixing apples and oranges. And I’m appalled, though not really surprised, by the level of plagiarism Wikipedia enables. As someone who earned his degree, I think plagiarism is fraud – it should be punished by expulsion, at least at college level. The other appalling statistic is that 56% of students abandon a topic if there’s not enough information on Wikipedia. That represents a stunting of intellectual curiosity when information isn’t easily available. Research is about digging. If you can’t find it, dig deeper. You’re more likely to come up with something original.

The final thing that jumped out of this infographic is the gender imbalance among the editors. Only 9% are women. Is it that men are inherently more geeky? I’m sure there must be a higher proportion of women in academia. At least there’s a planned 25% increase in women editors. And by 2015, Wikipedia plans to increase the number of regular editors from (presumably) 1,400 to 200,000, a massive recruitment. Given that editors are self-selecting, I wonder how they’ll manage that.

Feel free to post comments on this – I would be very interested in the feedback, and so I suspect would Wikipedia, who approached me to post the infographic. Wikipedia represents a seismic shift in the way we access knowledge, as well as questioning what counts as authoritative knowledge. One of the basic skills we should all learn is a critical approach to knowledge, dealing with both the argument and the stance of the author. It’s difficult to do that when the author is anonymous.

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