Encyclopedia Britannica fires back over Wikipedia row
A war of words has broken out over the accuracy of the Britannica encyclopedia. It has been sparked by a report – published in a period when Wikipedia was facing accusations of inaccuracy – that put the two sources of information on a par.
Britannica issued an extraordinary 20-page report yesterday in response to an article in the journal Nature which suggested that errors in Wikipedia were in fact quite rare and that it was on a level with Britannica in terms of accuracy.
Britannica took umbrage at the comparison with Wikipedia. It refers to the collaborative online encyclopedia as simply an ‘Internet database’, and described the report in Nature as demeaning.
‘Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading… The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit,’ it states.
It denies that a number of claims of inaccuracies are true, stating that those testing for accuracy were in error and exhorts Nature to ‘issue a full and public retraction of the article’.
Nature is having none of it. It maintains the study it carried out was both balanced and impartial. It says that independent scholars reviewed entries on the same subject from both resources without knowing which was which. The result showed that factual inaccuracies numbered 123 for Britannica and 162 for Wikipedia.
Britannica had this to say: ‘We discovered in Nature’s work a pattern of sloppiness, indifference to basic scholarly standards, and flagrant errors so numerous they completely invalidated the results.’
But Nature stands by the study. ‘Turning the reviewers’ comments into numerical scores did require a modicum of judgement, which was applied diligently and fairly,’ it states. As such it does not intend to retract the article.
Clearly Britannica is trying to protect its reputation – not only against comparisons with a rival that has been charged as being of doubtful quality, but also one that places no requirements over the expertise of those that create entries.
One intriguing point is why any of this had to be made public, as both sides claim to have tried to sort this out privately but were cold-shouldered by the other party.
Britannica claims: ‘We contacted Nature, asking for the original data, calling their attention to several of their errors, and offering to meet with them to review our findings in full, but they declined.’
While Nature writes: ‘Britannica’s general objections to this article were first made to us in private some months ago, at which point we willingly sent them every comment by a reviewer that served as the basis for our assessing something as an inaccuracy. While we were quite willing to discuss the issues, the company failed to provide specific details of its complaints when we asked for them in order to be able to assess its allegations. We did not receive any further correspondence until the publication of its open letter on 22 March 2006.’
Wikipedia has yet to comment.