Britannica Slams Nature's Wikipedia Comparison

Mar 24, 2006 (02:03 PM EST)

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Encyclopedia Britannica has unleashed an acerbic written attack on the science journal Nature, claiming the magazine's study that found Britannica and online encyclopedia Wikipedia comparably accurate was so "error-laden that it was completely without merit."

In an industry known more for gentility, Britannica came out swinging like a street fighter, calling on Nature to retract the study that was published in the magazine in December. In comparing online scientific articles from both publications, Nature had said that Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica in its coverage of scientific topics.

The findings floored Britannica, which employs 100 staff editors in its Chicago headquarters and works with thousands of contributors and advisers around the world, all scholars and experts in various fields. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is built mostly through the contributions of volunteers, who do not need to have any proven expertise in order to change or contribute articles.

Nature's study followed a serious error reported in Wikipedia in which a well-known journalist and assistant to Robert F. Kenney in the early 1960s was linked to the assassinations of Kennedy and his brother President John F. Kennedy.

In preparing its response to the Nature article, Britannica dedicated 30 editors and advisers from four countries to examine the data used by the magazine. The encyclopedia's conclusion: Almost everything about the magazine's investigation was "wrong and misleading."

"The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit," Britannica said in the response, which was posted on its Web site.

Nature, however, stands by its study, rejecting Britannica's accusations and saying the comparison was fair.

"We do not intend to retract our article," Nature said in a posting on its Web site.

Britannica claimed that dozens of inaccuracies attributed to Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and that a number of articles examined by Nature weren't even in the encyclopedia. Nature disputes these findings.

Theodore Pappas, executive editor for Britannica, on Friday blamed Nature's "extreme enthusiasm for Wikipedia" for what he called the magazine's bias. In publishing the study, Nature, according to Pappas, ran a large photo of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, an editorial praising the online encyclopedia and a podcast interview with Wales.

He also claimed Nature did not provide all the data from the study for Britannica to review before the article was published, and waited until the afternoon before the study hit the news stands to contact the company for comment.

Nature did turn over the data after publishing the study, which was based on inaccuracies experts found in 50 articles of the same topic taken from Wikipedia and Britannica.

To Pappas, Britannica and Wikipedia cannot be compared because of the differences in the publications.

"Wikipedia is fun for many people because it offers self publishing, it's free and free of rules -- and who doesn't like things that are free of rules," Pappas said. "It also offers almost immediate gratification.

"In the end, we don't confuse fun, instant gratification and a constantly changing free-form environment with the hard work associated with the commitment to scholarship, prudent publishing and rigorous editorial standards," Pappas said.

Wales acknowledged that Wikipedia does not have the same level of accuracy as Britannica in all subjects. The online encyclopedia is particularly strong in science and technology, but weak in many other areas.

"We're always very realistic," Wales said. "We consider ourselves a work in progress, and we don't see any reason to overstate things."

Nevertheless, Wales believed Britannica's criticism of the study was "overblown" and blamed news reports for saying the two publications were equal in accuracy, even though Wikipedia had 25 percent more mistakes in the study than Britannica.

"I think the study was good," Wales said.

For its part, Wikipedia has no beef with Britannica, which it sees as among the top in the industry.

"We're encyclopedia geeks, so we love Britannica," Wales said.