Britannica 2.0, you’re no Wikipedia


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Encyclopaedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz announced today that new features will be rolled out on Britannica.com in what looks like an effort to get hip with the Web 2.0 crowd.  This includes the ability for users to correct articles, one of the more powerful and controversial features of Britannica’s biggest online competitor for serving up encyclopedic information: Wikipedia.

But modifications from users will not appear immediately – unlike on Wikipedia, where you can have your moment of published glory instantly (if only fleetingly, before a heavy-handed editor deletes it).  Britannica plans to check the facts on all user contributions before they are published — and they hope to do so within 20 minutes of the user pressing “submit”.  I’ll believe that when I see it.

Before you can submit your own content to the site, you’ll be required to register with your real name and address.  Not sure how they plan to verify that information.  But the point is, Britannica still wants to differentiate itself from Wikipedia in terms of the quality of the content, which will still have to go through the hands of paid experts.  Per Mr. Cauz:

The reason it took us a long time to create a more user interactive website is because of the amount of technology required to ensure the changes are implemented in an expeditious manner. We still want people to have to go through the editorial workflow. We are developing a curated knowledge database.

Britannica also hopes that more dynamic content may attract more attention from Google, which Mr. Cauz stopped just short of accusing of collusion with Wikipedia:

If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google I would be very [displeased] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia.  Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?

I decided to compare some articles between Wikipedia and Britannica.com.  It’s well known that Wikipedia covers way more topics — a few years ago, a Britannica spokesman gave Wikipedia faint praise for covering the sport of extreme ironing, which oddly has no article in Britannica.  So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that searches for somewhat obscure programming languages like Rexx and OCaml came up empty on Britannica.com.  Searching for “programming” came up with a pretty decent list of topics.  When I navigated to one, though, I was forced to sign up for a “free trial” (is that anything like a free lunch?), which required entering credit card information.  They want to bill you the $69.95 annual fee at the end of the free trial if you don’t remember to cancel.  Screw that.

So, lemme see if I’ve got this straight.  When I want to look things up on the web, do I want to pay 70 smackers a year just to believe that the information that may or may not be on Britannica.com is maybe a little more accurate than what I could find for free and for sure on Wikipedia?

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a 240-year-old encyclopedia is still stuck in old media think.





24 Responses to Britannica 2.0, you’re no Wikipedia

  1. Britannica has no intention of acting on every submission our editors get within 20 minutes of the time it comes in. The idea that we do apparently comes from an ambiguous sentence in the Sydney Morning Herald that could perhaps be interpreted to mean this. In any event, it isn’t true. The 20-minute timetable has to do with an aspect of our publishing process and new data migrating to various servers and products. It has nothing to do with the editorial process.

    There’s no single timetable for reviewing submissions from readers because they’re all different. If you find a misspelling and tell us about it, we’ll probably publish a correction fast. On the other hand, if you tell us an article about 17th century France by a leading historian is completely wrongheaded in the role it ascribes to Cardinal Richelieu in the establishment of royal absolutism, and you’re kind enough to include eight paragraphs of heavily revised text to suggest how the problem might be corrected, we’re going to take a bit more time with that one. More than 20 minutes, I am very confident in saying. Among other steps, we’ll give the writer of the article the courtesy of checking with her on it, and we might talk to other advisers as well.

    We plan to handle edits from readers and contributors promptly, and we’ve put resources into making this happen, but there’s no stopwatch. Sometimes it’s better to leave something imperfect just as it is awhile longer than to change it hastily and make it worse.

    • Thanks for responding, Tom. I seriously wondered about that. The relevant section from the Sydney Morning Herald is:

      “He said the encyclopedia had set a benchmark of a 20-minute turnaround to update the site with user-submitted edits to existing articles, which are written by the encyclopedia’s paid expert contributors.”

      Where “He” is Mr. Cauz. You might want to get them to correct that if it isn’t true.

  2. Britannica has no intention of acting on every submission our editors get within 20 minutes of the time it comes in. The idea that we do apparently comes from an ambiguous sentence in the Sydney Morning Herald that could perhaps be interpreted to mean this. In any event, it isn’t true. The 20-minute timetable has to do with an aspect of our publishing process and new data migrating to various servers and products. It has nothing to do with the editorial process.

    There’s no single timetable for reviewing submissions from readers because they’re all different. If you find a misspelling and tell us about it, we’ll probably publish a correction fast. On the other hand, if you tell us an article about 17th century France by a leading historian is completely wrongheaded in the role it ascribes to Cardinal Richelieu in the establishment of royal absolutism, and you’re kind enough to include eight paragraphs of heavily revised text to suggest how the problem might be corrected, we’re going to take a bit more time with that one. More than 20 minutes, I am very confident in saying. Among other steps, we’ll give the writer of the article the courtesy of checking with her on it, and we might talk to other advisers as well.

    We plan to handle edits from readers and contributors promptly, and we’ve put resources into making this happen, but there’s no stopwatch. Sometimes it’s better to leave something imperfect just as it is awhile longer than to change it hastily and make it worse.

    • Thanks for responding, Tom. I seriously wondered about that. The relevant section from the Sydney Morning Herald is:

      "He said the encyclopedia had set a benchmark of a 20-minute turnaround to update the site with user-submitted edits to existing articles, which are written by the encyclopedia's paid expert contributors."

      Where "He" is Mr. Cauz. You might want to get them to correct that if it isn't true.

  3. Somehow it sees to me there is no contest – in the sense that the Britannica and Wikipedia are not in competition at all. They address different target populations with different types of offerings. We cherish our shelf of the hardcopy Britannica, and use it for authoritative academic data at times, but Wikipedia fulfills a completely different expectation – instant (and free) access, a far wider range of subjects including informal and popular culture, and information we know we need to put through skeptical analysis and validation.

    As long as Britannica needs to turn a profit and Wikipedia is a communal labor of love, this difference is unlikely to change.

    • You may be right, Nathan. But I think Britannica’s market for that information is shrinking quickly. Back in the days before the web, when I needed to do in-depth research I wouldn’t use Britannica as one of my sources. No, I’d go to the library and start with a Bibliography of Bibliographies or the card catalog — then check out all the source literature I could find. At that time, Britannica and other encyclopedias filled what has now become Wikipedia’s niche: general knowledge on a subject of curiosity, with the understanding that you need to research further to get all the details. Britannica is still too general to act as an authoritative source on any specific topic, but not broad enough to compete with Wikipedia in the “general knowledge” space, IMHO.

      • It’s worse than that — Britannica is, in my experience, as prone to error as Wikipedia. The difference is that Britannica’s errors tend to be errors of bias more often than Wikipedia’s.

        • Those are often difficult to quantify.

          But yes, if Wikipedia does one thing to extreme, that would be their attempts to eliminate bias and maintain a neutral tone. The problem with relying on experts alone is that experts are often biased.

        • Not only that, but they’re often very good at convincing others that their biases are pure facts. They are, after all, the experts.

    • “Somehow it sees to me there is no contest – in the sense that the Britannica and Wikipedia … address different target populations with different types of offerings.”

      @Nathan Zeldes: I think you’re right. Britannica and Wikipedia are dramatically different, and if there are any similarities between the two they’re at the most abstract level. The site Britannica is building isn’t a wiki at all. But what can you do? People will see things as they’re predisposed to. Did someone mention “bias”? :-)

  4. Somehow it sees to me there is no contest – in the sense that the Britannica and Wikipedia are not in competition at all. They address different target populations with different types of offerings. We cherish our shelf of the hardcopy Britannica, and use it for authoritative academic data at times, but Wikipedia fulfills a completely different expectation – instant (and free) access, a far wider range of subjects including informal and popular culture, and information we know we need to put through skeptical analysis and validation.

    As long as Britannica needs to turn a profit and Wikipedia is a communal labor of love, this difference is unlikely to change.

    • You may be right, Nathan. But I think Britannica's market for that information is shrinking quickly. Back in the days before the web, when I needed to do in-depth research I wouldn't use Britannica as one of my sources. No, I'd go to the library and start with a Bibliography of Bibliographies or the card catalog — then check out all the source literature I could find. At that time, Britannica and other encyclopedias filled what has now become Wikipedia's niche: general knowledge on a subject of curiosity, with the understanding that you need to research further to get all the details. Britannica is still too general to act as an authoritative source on any specific topic, but not broad enough to compete with Wikipedia in the "general knowledge" space, IMHO.

      • It's worse than that — Britannica is, in my experience, as prone to error as Wikipedia. The difference is that Britannica's errors tend to be errors of bias more often than Wikipedia's.

        • Those are often difficult to quantify.

          But yes, if Wikipedia does one thing to extreme, that would be their attempts to eliminate bias and maintain a neutral tone. The problem with relying on experts alone is that experts are often biased.

        • Not only that, but they're often very good at convincing others that their biases are pure facts. They are, after all, the experts.

    • "Somehow it sees to me there is no contest – in the sense that the Britannica and Wikipedia … address different target populations with different types of offerings."

      @Nathan Zeldes: I think you're right. Britannica and Wikipedia are dramatically different, and if there are any similarities between the two they're at the most abstract level. The site Britannica is building isn't a wiki at all. But what can you do? People will see things as they're predisposed to. Did someone mention "bias"? :-)

  5. I too hate the idea of having to shell out CC information just to do a free trial, and then get billed if I forget to cancel the free trial. Bah humbug to that. Just end the free trial.

    I really have no other complaints with EB other then to say I have never owned a copy. My family does, however, have a rather dated set of Funk & Wagnell’s encyclopedias.

    • My great-grandmother had a 1950 edition of Funk & Wagnalls. We kids used to snicker at the name, but we loved the full-color spreads of the flags of the world. That’s the trouble with dead tree editions, though: they go out of date. Many of those flags are no more, and many have been added — even the US flag has two more stars.

  6. I too hate the idea of having to shell out CC information just to do a free trial, and then get billed if I forget to cancel the free trial. Bah humbug to that. Just end the free trial.

    I really have no other complaints with EB other then to say I have never owned a copy. My family does, however, have a rather dated set of Funk & Wagnell's encyclopedias.

    • My great-grandmother had a 1950 edition of Funk & Wagnalls. We kids used to snicker at the name, but we loved the full-color spreads of the flags of the world. That's the trouble with dead tree editions, though: they go out of date. Many of those flags are no more, and many have been added — even the US flag has two more stars.