[Paleopsych] Nature: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head

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Wed Dec 28 03:01:37 UTC 2005

Internet encyclopaedias go head to head

[Hooray for Jimbo! Of course, it's the non-science articles that generate the 
biggest controversies.]

Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438900a

    Jim Giles


    Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the
    accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.

    One of the extraordinary stories of the Internet age is that of
    Wikipedia, a free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. This
    radical and rapidly growing publication, which includes close to 4
    million entries, is now a much-used resource. But it is also
    controversial: if anyone can edit entries, how do users know if
    Wikipedia is as accurate as established sources such as
    Encyclopaedia Britannica?
    Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text
    for this. If you require assistance to access this image, or to
    obtain a text description, please contact npg at nature.com


    Several recent cases have highlighted the potential problems. One
    article was revealed as falsely suggesting that a former assistant
    to US Senator Robert Kennedy may have been involved in his
    assassination. And podcasting pioneer Adam Curry has been accused
    of editing the entry on podcasting to remove references to
    competitors' work. Curry says he merely thought he was making the
    entry more accurate.

    However, an expert-led investigation carried out by Nature -- the
    first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica's
    coverage of science -- suggests that such high-profile examples are
    the exception rather than the rule.

    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; Britannica, about three.

    Considering how Wikipedia articles are written, that result might
    seem surprising. A solar physicist could, for example, work on the
    entry on the Sun, but would have the same status as a contributor
    without an academic background. Disputes about content are usually
    resolved by discussion among users.

    But Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and president of the
    encyclopaedia's parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation of St
    Petersburg, Florida, says the finding shows the potential of
    Wikipedia. "I'm pleased," he says. "Our goal is to get to
    Britannica quality, or better."

    Wikipedia is growing fast. The encyclopaedia has added 3.7 million
    articles in 200 languages since it was founded in 2001. The English
    version has more than 45,000 registered users, and added about
    1,500 new articles every day of October 2005. Wikipedia has become
    the 37th most visited website, according to Alexa, a web ranking

    But critics have raised concerns about the site's increasing
    influence, questioning whether multiple, unpaid editors can match
    paid professionals for accuracy. Writing in the online magazine TCS
    last year, former Britannica editor Robert McHenry declared one
    Wikipedia entry -- on US founding father Alexander Hamilton -- as
    "what might be expected of a high-school student". Opening up the
    editing process to all, regardless of expertise, means that
    reliability can never be ensured, he concluded.

    Yet Nature's investigation suggests that Britannica's advantage may
    not be great, at least when it comes to science entries. In the
    study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and
    Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines
    and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer
    examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias;
    they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A
    total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and
    were then examined by Nature's news team.

    Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important
    concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four
    from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual
    errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in
    Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
    Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text
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    Kurt Jansson (left), president of Wikimedia Deutschland, displays a
    list of 10,000 Wikipedia authors; Wikipedia's entry on global
    warming has been a source of contention for its contributors.

    Editors at Britannica would not discuss the findings, but say their
    own studies of Wikipedia have uncovered numerous flaws. "We have
    nothing against Wikipedia," says Tom Panelas, director of corporate
    communications at the company's headquarters in Chicago. "But it is
    not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a
    couple of articles are poorly written. There are lots of articles
    in that condition. They need a good editor."

    Several Nature reviewers agreed with Panelas' point on readability,
    commenting that the Wikipedia article they reviewed was poorly
    structured and confusing. This criticism is common among
    information scientists, who also point to other problems with
    article quality, such as undue prominence given to controversial
    scientific theories. But Michael Twidale, an information scientist
    at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that
    Wikipedia's strongest suit is the speed at which it can updated, a
    factor not considered by Nature's reviewers.

    "People will find it shocking to see how many errors there are in
    Britannica," Twidale adds. "Print encyclopaedias are often set up
    as the gold standards of information quality against which the
    failings of faster or cheaper resources can be compared. These
    findings remind us that we have an 18-carat standard, not a
    24-carat one."

    The most error-strewn article, that on Dmitry Mendeleev, co-creator
    of the periodic table, illustrates this. Michael Gordin, a science
    historian at Princeton University who wrote a 2004 book on
    Mendeleev, identified 19 errors in Wikipedia and 8 in Britannica.
    These range from minor mistakes, such as describing Mendeleev as
    the 14th child in his family when he was the 13th, to more
    significant inaccuracies. Wikipedia, for example, incorrectly
    describes how Mendeleev's work relates to that of British chemist
    John Dalton. "Who wrote this stuff?" asked another reviewer. "Do
    they bother to check with experts?"

    But to improve Wikipedia, Wales is not so much interested in
    checking articles with experts as getting them to write the
    articles in the first place.

    As well as comparing the two encyclopaedias, Nature surveyed more
    than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had
    heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis,
    less than 10% help to update it. The steady trickle of scientists
    who have contributed to articles describe the experience as
    rewarding, if occasionally frustrating (see [21]'Challenges of
    being a Wikipedian').

    Greater involvement by scientists would lead to a "multiplier
    effect", says Wales. Most entries are edited by enthusiasts, and
    the addition of a researcher can boost article quality hugely.
    "Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way," he says.

    Wales also plans to introduce a 'stable' version of each entry.
    Once an article reaches a specific quality threshold it will be
    tagged as stable. Further edits will be made to a separate 'live'
    version that would replace the stable version when deemed to be a
    significant improvement. One method for determining that threshold,
    where users rate article quality, will be trialled early next year.
    [22]Top of page

Related links


      * [23]Science in the web age: The expanding electronic universe
      * [24]Science in the web age: Joint efforts
      * [25]Science in the web age: The real death of print
      * [26]Science in the web age: Start your engines
      * [27]Reference revolution
      * [28]Wanted: social entrepreneurs


      * [29]Nature Podcast


      * [30]Wikipedia
      * [31]Encyclopaedia Britannica


   20. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html#top
   21. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/box/438900a_BX1.html
   22. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html#top
   23. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/438547a
   24. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/438548a
   25. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/438550a
   26. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/438554a
   27. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/news050314-17
   28. http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/434941a
   29. http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index.html
   30. http://www.wikipedia.org/
   31. http://www.britannica.com/

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