The Great Encyclopedia Debate: Wikipedia vs. Britannica

The Wall Street Journal today contains an interesting debate between Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia‘s founder and chairman of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Dale Hoiberg, senior vice president and editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here are a few of the most interesting snippets:

Wales: “We believe that encyclopedias should not be locked up under the control of a single organization, but a part of the healthy dialog of a free society.”

Hoiberg: “But there is little evidence to suggest that simply having a lot of people freely editing encyclopedia articles produces more balanced coverage. On the contrary, it opens the gates to propaganda and seesaw fights between writers with different axes to grind. Britannica draws from a community, just as Wikipedia does. Ours consists of more than 4,000 scholars and experts around the world who serve as our contributors and advisers. … While Wikipedia may welcome scholars, all the reports I’ve seen suggest that most of the work is done by individuals who, though very dedicated, have little or no scholarly background.”

Wales: “Artificially excluding good people from the process is not the best way to gather accurate knowledge. Britannica has acknowledged the value of having multiple contributors, although of course because they are proprietary rather than freely licensed they would have a very hard time attracting the kind of talent that we have. The main thrust of our evolution has been to become more open, because we have found time and time again that increased openness, increased dialog and debate, leads to higher quality. I think it is a misunderstanding to think of “openness” as antithetical to quality. “Openness” is going to be necessary in order to reach the highest levels of quality. Britannica has long been a standard bearer, and they have done a fine job within their model. But it is time to work in a different model, with different techniques made possible by new technologies but the same goals, to reach ever higher standards.”

Hoiberg: “I can only assume Mr. Wales is being ironic when he says Britannica would have a hard time attracting the kind of talent that Wikipedia has. Britannica has published more than a hundred Nobel Prize winners and thousands of other well-known experts and scholars. Contrary to Wikipedia, Britannica’s contributor base is transparent and not anonymous.”

Wales: “We have spoken openly about some of the challenges and difficulties we face at Wikipedia. Not long ago, you suffered some bad publicity due to errors in Britannica. Have you considered changing your model to allow quick, transparent responses to such criticisms as a way to achieve a higher quality level? “

Hoiberg: “I must point out that Mr. Wales’s inclusion of two links in his question to me, one to Wikipedia itself, is sneaky. I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance.”

Wales: “Sneaky? I beg to differ. On the Internet it is possible and desirable to enhance the understanding of the reader by linking directly to resources to enhance and further understanding.”

Quotes from the Wall Street Journal

We have not resolved the great encyclopedia debate, and we probably never will. Both models have their strengths and weaknesses, and as a result, both can probably learn from the other, which is why the title of the WSJ article, Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?, is so misleading. The title implies a black and white solution to an increasingly gray world . We can have both a community encyclopedia and a traditional encyclopedia without having to choose one over the other. This gray world that we live in has enough room for both approaches to continue and thrive.