Encyclopædia Britannica fights back against Wikipedia, soon to let users edit contents

From Wikinews, the free news source you can write!
Jump to: navigation, search

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wikimedia-logo.svg This article mentions the Wikimedia Foundation, one of its projects, or people related to it. Wikinews is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation.
Title page of the New American edition of the Encylopædia Britannica (1899)

Encyclopædia Britannica (EB), the authoritative reference book first published in 1768, is planning to let readers edit its entries, Jorge Cauz, its president said Friday, as it battles to keep pace with online Internet encyclopedia projects like Wikipedia.

Starting next week, readers, visitors and contributing experts to EB's free, online version, Britannica.com, will be allowed to submit proposed changes and contributions to Britannica editors, who will then review the edits and make the necessary alterations. This move is meant to let readers help keep the reference work up-to-date by collaboration.

In expanding and maintaining entries online, users whose editorial suggestions are accepted and published entirely or in part will be credited by name in the section of the article that lists contributors.

The new website features will be available on the site within the next twenty-four hours. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, "Cauz is promising a 20-minute turnover on these edits, but that number could go up dramatically if the company cannot anticipate a large influx of edits at once."

Britannica, however, explained that it would not allow a Wikipedia form of editing which allows a wide range of users to make contributions. EB's novel user choice will include enrollment of experts in a reward scheme and invitation of selected readers to contribute. Several readers will also be allowed to use Britannica materials to contribute their own articles that will be featured on the site.

"We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable 'wisdom of the crowds'," wrote Jorge Cauz in his blog. "We believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one," Cauz noted, explaining further that "these experts would sit alongside the encyclopaedia entries and the official material would carry a 'Britannica Checked' stamp, to distinguish it from the user-generated content."

Cauz also announced the unveiling by Britannica of a beta (trial) version of what will become the finished Britannica Online website, which will include a re-design and the addition of web-based tools for readers and users to upload their own reference materials. The new features that Britannica will roll out over the next six months also include an article rating system and a comprehensive list of contributors by subject area.

Articles developed by Britannica's own editors also appear in the printed volumes, which are published every two years, though material created by what Cauz called their "community of scholars" will only appear online.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, with Britannica book of the year 2002, with white library labels.

“Wikipedia contributes to the spread of information and many people are happy with it as their only source of reference, as are many people happy to eat McDonald’s every day,” said Cauz, who discussed differences between Britannica and Wikipedia features of online editing. “That’s the last thing we want to be. We are a different type of animal, catering to a different type of crowd,” he added.

Cauz said the company will retain its staff of about 100 full-time editors and over 4,000 expert contributors. “I think the future is likely going to be that in every media segment there has to be a symbiotic relationship between editor and reader,” said Cauz, adding that each article will have a detailed history showing changes and who made them, as in Wikipedia. In 1933, Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to introduce a "continuous revision" policy, with continuous reprinting such that every article is updated on a regular schedule.

Unlike Wikipedia, which allows anonymous edits through a user's IP address being logged, Britannica's new features strictly require contributors or users to register, revealing their real names and addresses, prior to modifying or creating their own articles. Contributions from non-academic users will sit in a separate section.

A new or changed feature called “Suggest Edit” button will allow readers of a particular article to suggest information clarification, post questions to contributors or add to the existing text, subject to Britannica editors' approval. "What we are trying to do is shifting … to a much more proactive role for the user and reader where the reader is not only going to learn from reading the article but by modifying the article and - importantly - by maybe creating his own content or her own content," wrote Cauz.

Cauz faulted Google for setting Wikipedia higher in pagerank than Britannica. He explained that, in EB, new efforts to participate in online collaboration of encyclopedic content are deemed by recognizing experts as a requirement in order to achieve objectivity and high quality. During his tenure, officials from Britannica have become outspoken in their criticism of Wikipedia articles' contents.

Cquote1.svg Britannica already has an established reputation for accurate content. Wikipedia is merely a starting point, with research to be taken with a pinch of salt. Cquote2.svg

—--David Reece, startupearth.com (Startup Earth)

In July 2006, Cauz personally entered the fray in an interview in New Yorker Magazine, in which he stated that Wikipedia had "decline(d) into a hulking, mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles" and that "Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School."

The 241-year-old publication, Encyclopædia Britannica, is a general English-language encyclopaedia published by a privately held company, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., and is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print. The Britannica articles are directed at educated adult readers. First published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland, it quickly grew in popularity and size, with its third edition in 1801 reaching over 21 volumes.

Britannica's latest 15th edition has a unique three-part structure: a 12-volume Micropædia of short articles (generally having fewer than 750 words), a 17-volume Macropædia of long articles (having from two to 310 pages) and a single Propædia volume created to give a hierarchical outline of human knowledge. The Micropædia is devised for quick fact-checking and as a door to the Macropædia.

At present, Britannica offers optical disc, online and mobile versions. The Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006 DVD has over 55 million words and just over 100,000 articles, including 73,645 regular Britannica articles. The Encyclopædia Britannica Online website has more than 120,000 articles and is updated regularly. EB's virtual space was founded in 1994 and contains articles comprised of over 46 million words.

In February 2007, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. said that it was working with AskMeNow to launch a mobile encyclopedia, to enable users to send questions via text messages. Replies would then be forwarded by AskMenow based on Britannicas' articles.

Screen shot of Encyclopædia Britannica article on the front page of Wikipedia on August 8, 2007 at 3:20 a.m. (eastern time).

As Britannica is a business, the company needed to charge, and Web access to the archives cost $70 a year. In April 2008, "Britannica Webshare," a version of the online Encyclopaedia Britannica has been available for free, but only for Web publishers. The simple process requires signing up, giving a site URL, a description, and approval by the company. “This program is intended for people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, webmasters, or writers. We reserve the right to deny participation to anyone who in our judgment doesn’t qualify,” said TechCrunch.

In June 2008, Britannica announced an initiative to facilitate collaboration between online expert and amateur scholarly contributors for Britannica's on-line content (in the spirit of a wiki), with editorial oversight from Britannica staff. According to its statement titled "Britannica's New Site: More Participation, Collaboration from Experts and Readers," approved contributions would be credited, though contributing automatically grants Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. perpetual, irrevocable license to those contributions.

PC World has, however, reported that it became clear how steep of a climb Britannica faces. "Wikipedia received a massive 97 percent share of the online encyclopedia market or visits U.S. Web surfers made to online encyclopedias last week," Web monitoring company Hitwise said Friday. "MSN Encarta was second with 1.27 percent of visits, followed by Encyclopedia.com (0.76 percent), Fact Monster (0.72 percent) and, in fifth place, Britannica.com (0.57 percent). Britannica.com's share of U.S. visits dropped 53 percent last month compared with December 2007," Hitwise added.

While Britannica.com has 1.5 million visitors per day, Wikipedia attracts about six million, The Times reported. Hitwise also said that as of last week, Wikipedia ranked the 13th-most-visited site on the Web overall, while Britannica.com was 2,349th. The essential difference is Wikipedia does not charge any fee, while Britannica.com requires a paid subscription for access of some contents. Britannica, however, is issuing a "Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 Ultimate Edition" - the £40 2009 DVD edition of its famous print encyclopaedia.

"One of the big questions still on the table is whether Britannica will open its content or maintain its premium membership paid wall. In order to compete with Wikipedia in the Google [search results], Britannica needs to build up inbound links. If content is locked up behind the paid content walls, people will be much more likely to link to other websites with free content -- such as that available on Wikipedia," Hitwise analyst Heather Hopkins noted.

A Picture of Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales (current chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation) used in the 2008 Fundraiser Campaign

Wikipedia, a not-for-profit collaborative online encyclopedia, in its Wikipedia Foundation's recent drive for public donations, had aimed to raise $US6 million over the course of six months. On January 1, "it had met the target, from more than 125,000 donors," said Wikipedia head honcho and co-founder Jimmy Wales. He has invoked Wikipedia's "free-culture movement", and its mission "to bring free knowledge to the planet, free of charge and free of advertising".

"Wikipedia is the new frontier of human knowledge," wrote Anonymous, donating $US100. American Patrick Culligan left another comment, saying, "Accurate information is what enables society to act in the appropriate way in which we can change the world. History cannot be left for the winners to write." Another said: "Wikipedia is one of those 'big ideas' which will change our world for the better."

After Encyclopedia Britannica's announcement that it is introducing a more open editing system, web 2.0 giant Wikipedia has considered attempts to move away from its free and open editing system. Academics, scholars and others have long criticized the writing principles fostered by Wikipedia amid vandals having often changed Wikipedia entries resulting to erroneous reports.

Now, for the first time, the online encyclopedia has considered restricting the edits that users can make. The system known internally as "Flagged Revisions," has been sparked off by inaccurate changes after a Wikipedia user "Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf" and an anonymous editor respectively edited articles to say that both U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Carlyle Byrd had died. The errors were caught and duly corrected after about five minutes, but they were up long enough for the Washington Post, among other media outlets, to notice.

In just the latest incidents in a long and rich history of vandalism since its 2001 launch, Vernon Kay and Apple's CEO Steve Jobs, among others, have also been falsely reported as dead on Wikipedia. Wiki means "fast" in Hawaiian and it certainly is, even amid subtle vandalism, since anyone can amend its 2.7m entries. Wikipedia has long struggled with such prankery, and has ever since worked closely with its community to overcome it without adopting harsh protections.

Cquote1.svg We want people to be able to participate, but we have a tool available now that is consistent with higher quality. Cquote2.svg

—--Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Donal "Jimbo" Wales

As Wikipedia itself acknowledges, "Allowing anyone to edit Wikipedia means that it is more easily vandalized or susceptible to unchecked information, which requires removal." In the proposed process, only registered or reliable users could have their material or edits immediately appear to the general public visiting Wikipedia. Other contributors' edits or changes will first be reviewed, signed off, or “flagged” by reliable users.

“This nonsense would have been 100 percent prevented by Flagged Revisions,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales under the header “Why I Am Asking Flagged Revisions Be Turned On Now,” on his user page. “[Instances of misinformation] could [...] have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but [..] [many are] breaking news [stories] and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out)," explained Wales who calls for monitoring to prevent false entries.

Wales said that a poll revealed 60 percent of Wikipedians favored the new proposal and that it would be a “time limited test.” He noted that the delay should be less than the German Wikipedia allowed: “less than 1 week, hopefully a lot less, because we will only be using it on a subset of articles, the boundaries of which can be adjusted over time to manage the backlog.”

Wales issued a statement requesting implementation of the extension: “To the Wikimedia Foundation: per the poll of the English Wikipedia community and upon my personal recommendation, please turn on the flagged revisions feature as approved in the poll.” But the community response was further debate.

An organization chart for the Wikimedia Foundation as of 11 January 2008.

As of February 2, his request hasn't been implemented.

Apparently the Wikipedia German edition has been using a form of the Flagged Revisions system since May as a test case. It has, however, led to a delay of up to three weeks in getting some new articles and edits published, for critics have said that the system is very labor intensive and comments can take weeks to appear. Wales, however, pointed out that the system he was proposing was only for biographies of living people. Wikipedia has provided comprehensive and up-to-minute entries on the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 and the Mumbai terrorist attacks this past November as the events were still taking place.

While some participants in the debate have argued that the rule change is unnecessary, some have described it in terms of an ethical imperative. As one administrator wrote: "In the vast majority of cases, a Wikipedia article on an individual will be the very highest-ranking search engine result when a search is conducted on the name of that person. This affects the lives of the people we write about on a daily basis. To suggest that Wikipedia does not have profound obligations to do its best to keep these articles free of defamatory, gossipy and privacy-invading material is to suggest that we are without obligation to consider the real-world impacts of our actions and the work we are doing."

Cquote1.svg Anything that makes Wikipedia more accurate can only be advantageous Cquote2.svg

—--Amanda Dolan, Glasgow

Others have argued that practical considerations should prevent a change that could result in a large backlog of unreviewed edits. "Flagged revisions will suffocate under its own weight," claimed administrator DragonflySixtyseven. Still other Wikipedian editors further argue that the current system works just fine.

Wikimedia Board members (from left) Devouard, Ting Chen, Domas Mituzas, executive secretary, and current Chair Michael Snow on Opening Ceremony in WM 2008, Alexandria

Some consider the split could ultimately threaten the future of the dominant online encyclopedia. "The big issue is that while we have majority support, we don't have consensus, and that's the way we have always made our decisions," Jake Wartenberg user and member of RC patrol chimed in. "A lot of editors are becoming disenchanted with the project; we are losing them all the time," he added. By way of reply, amidst the embarrassing debacle, Mr. Wales has reached out to help and offered a compromise, inviting the opposition to submit alternative suggestions until the 29th of January.

“Implementing this functionality is really a volunteer community decision. We know the discussion about flagged revs is still taking place on English Wikipedia, but at this stage, it appears the majority of the community are behind this decision. As that discussion unfolds, we’ll have a better sense of the timing,” Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation, in a rejoinder, wrote in his e-mail message, explaining the status of the proposed restriction.

"Now seems an excellent time for Wikipedia to pause and take stock. It has proved the surprising wisdom of crowds as well as their utter idiocy. Its challenge now is to harness the enthusiasm of those volunteers while becoming a more reliable, better written source. And at some point, surely, its founders might want to turn it into a commercial venture. As Samuel Johnson almost said: "No one but a blockhead ever edited, excepted for money," said Iain Hollingshead, a British freelance journalist and novelist.

Map showing existing and planned Wikimedia local chapters through December 2007. Dark blue is existing chapters, Green is Planned chapters, Light blue is Chapters in discussion.

"The suggestion of increased moderation on Wikipedia would divide the community. The site has built its reputation on being 'the encyclopedia that anyone can edit'. It's less radical to be 'the encyclopedia that anyone can edit as long as their edits are approved by a trusted Wikipedian' but that's what co-founder Jimmy Wales has suggested. Wikipedia's openness is its strength," said Shane Richmond of The Daily Telegraph, asking, "is it most valuable feature its openness or its accuracy?"

Wales' position is that "I consider our BLP issue to be so important that I think it is actually unethical to not use a tool which holds great promise for helping with the problem, now that it has been successfully tested elsewhere. Anyone who would like to see this tool not go into practice needs to start by convincing people that either (a) it is OK for the BLP vandalism problem to continue or (b) there is a better way to solve it."


Related news

Sources

Wikipedia Learn more about Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia on Wikipedia.
Bookmark-new.svg