Wikipedia vs The Old Guard
Before Wikipedia rose to prominence, the online encyclopedia was dominated by two names: Britannica.com, the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and its younger rival, Microsoft's Encarta. Those associated with the former have been scathing of Wikipedia, particularly ex-editor Robert McHenry, who's likened it to a public toilet. Microsoft, meanwhile, is careful to differentiate between the bulk knowledge presented by community-generated sources and the expert analysis produced by a professionally generated encyclopedia. So how do the three match up? We asked three experts to evaluate articles pertaining to their field, to give us an unscientific snapshot of the competing sources.
Dr Chris Clark Historian, St Catherine's College, Cambridge. Author of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (Allen Lane, 2006).
Otto Von Bismarck: Dr Clark describes the Wikipedia entry as "largely sound on the facts" bar one typo, although he notes "a marked deterioration towards the end". Here, the interpretations offered weren't subtle, while the handling of the health insurance question is simplistic. What's more, the section on Bismarck legacy "leaves out the prominent theme of the Bismarck cult that flowered after his departure from office". The Encarta essay is "clearly better than its Wiki counterpart", being "more elegantly written", even if it "lacks the detail offered in the Wiki piece". Britannica's article, meanwhile, "is magisterial", offering "by far the best characterisation of the three Bismarck entries" and providing "a wealth of interesting and lucid commentary on the struggles of Bismarck's career".
The Franco-Prussian War: Wikipedia improves here. Clark calls the writing "clearer" and "more elegant" and suggests that, while a few recent studies are missing from the bibliography, the authors are good at linking in the broader European setting without confusing the reader. Military and technical details are also well handled. Encarta, by contrast, falls down. Clark calls it "extremely superficial" and complains of the lack of background or wider context, not to mention a bibliography. Britannica's offering, however, comes across as "very polished and factually correct, although it's less richly detailed than the Wikipedia entry and less informative on military developments".
"It occurs to me that Wikipedia is especially good on relatively circumscribed events," suggests Clark, "where providing a good service is a matter of compiling as much relevant contextual material as possible, filling in the details and providing a clear outline of key milestones."
Dr Oliver Downing, Lecturer in Pharmacology (retired), University of Aston.
Atherosclerosis: Wikipedia performs well on this subject. Dr Downing suggests its entry would be of more benefit to the serious student than its Encarta and Britannica equivalents. In fact, "the layman may find too much information," he suggests, "although much of the detail is layered in other articles accessed through the hyper-text links." Still, Wikipedia's entry distinguishes between atherosclerosis and a related condition, arteriosclerosis, and it also mentions the "oxidation" of liquids as an important step in atherogenesis.
Britannica fares poorly, with a number of minor inaccuracies relating to the passage of cholesterol through the endothelial layer and the position of lesions, not to mention an incorrect statement that atherosclerosis plays a causal role in increasing blood pressure (it doesn't unless it affects the renal arteries, leading to kidney disease). Despite this, Dr Downing feels the article would be of use to a casual reader. Encarta earns the Dunce's Cap. The article on the circulatory system, which covers atherosclerosis, has much less information than the other two encyclopedias, and appears to confuse arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis.