If you were on a different planet at the time, you might not have seen the December article in Nature “Internet encyclopedias go head to head”, in which Nature has experts analyze some articles on science in the two encyclopediae and declares them about equal in quality.
Last week, Britannica came out with a strenuous rebuttal (pdf). Britannica makes some excellent points on the weakness of Nature’s methodologies, but most of these were pretty clear to anybody who read between the lines of the original article. More damningly, under close scrutiny it looks like some of the work was downright sloppy, and Nature is refusing to release all the data. I’m disappointed in you, Nature. What would your mother say?
What’s most interesting, however, is a recurring motif that emerges in Britannica’s detailed objections. Britannica defends omissions for a mixture of reasons—because the information was outside the scope of a general encyclopedia, to retain clarity and focus within an article, and possibly, on occasion, even because of space constraints. Britannica also asserts that yearbook articles have no place in the comparison of the encyclopediae; they’re entirely separate in Britannica’s eyes.
Britannica, not without reason, places a great deal of value on the editorial decisions of scope and their effect on clarity and focus. It repeatedly defends the omission of information on this basis. I think it should be pretty clear, however, that the information doesn’t have to be left on the cutting room floor to achieve clarity—it simply has to be represented in the right way and the right place. It is certainly within the realm of possibility to retain detail without detracting from clarity. Britannica is thinking like a paper encyclopedia, not like a hypertext encyclopedia.
Wikipedia runs free of scope restrictions and space restrictions. It can expound all it wants on the plant family Meliaceae. Where Britannica says, “We are not a botanical encyclopedia and do not pretend to be”, Wikipedia wants to be a general encyclopedia and every subject encyclopedia, and the yearbooks. Can it be successful at that? I don’t know.
Britannica has to cope with being an encyclopedia with a paid editorial staff, so managing scope creep in subject matter and amount of detail is a much bigger issue than for Wikipedia. Wikipedia has to cope with being an encyclopedia with a volunteer editorial staff, so controlling clarity and consistency of quality is the more difficult part. This comparison started off being all about the factual information in the two encyclopediae, but facts turn out to be the easy part—writing and editing is where the differences really emerge. Who will “win”? Well, I think there’s plenty of room and plenty of time to work things out.