Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Wikipedia vs Britannica

A few days ago, I challenged Ed Felten to do some more comparison work. In the spirit of Milgram, I didn’t propose a theory. (This was mostly because I was trying to make a good joke about assigning the professor homework, but couldn’t come up with one.) However, on consideration, I think that I should propose some theories, and also not influence the experiment.

So, hypothesis 1:
Wikipedia will have 30-50% more entry coverage than the others.
In particular, I don’t expect Ed Felten will have an entry, and I
expect one of his two computer science entries to not be in each
comparison encyclopedia.

Hypothesis 2:
The quality of Wikipedia, measured by errors detected, will meet
that of the others.

Building a large encyclopedia is a lot of work, and I don’t expect that the quality assurance and fact checking will be great anywhere.

Hypothesis 3:
The quality of Wikipedia, measured by the depth of the entries,
will be substantially greater than the comparison.

Techies aren’t noted for brevity and conciseness, and the web doesn’t
have physical constraints holding down the size of the entries,
whereas each DVD you ship may add $2 to the cost of a product. I
expect that the difference would be largest against the print or CD

Hypothesis 4:
The quality of Wikipedia, as measured by the accessability of
entries, will be lower.

By accessability, I mean how good the
basic introduction and contextualization are, and how well the entry
takes you from no knowledge to some.

Hypothosis 5:
Ed will believe that Encarta’s entry on the Microsoft trial is
biased towards Microsoft.


An encyclopedia must be measured first on accuracy, and secondly on
breadth. A roomful of monkeys writing entries does not get you a
useful encyclopedia, but neither does one with one entry. (There are
a great many useful topical encyclopedias which address this by
constraining themselves to one subject.

I expect that Wikipedia’s accuracy will be roughly that of the others,
and it will win, hands down, on breadth and depth. However, this test
is biased by the selection of terms, where they are known to a
computer science professor. If my hypotheses pan out, it would be
fascinating to see if we could recruit from across the Princeton
faculty, to see if the same tests hold true across wider disciplines.

(I did two short tests, on Rabbi Akiba, and Brillat-Savarin.
Wikipedia spells it Akiva. But I
don’t have a comparison document to compare to.)

One comment on "Wikipedia vs Britannica"

  • Nudecybot says:

    I have just recently begun using wikipedia and was startled by both:
    -the accuracy of the information written up (at least in topics that I presume to understand)
    -the accessibility of the information in terms of style, topic introduction (made easier by copious hyperlinks for most words that may be stumbling blocks)
    Admittedly I had less than high expectations of the information provided via Wikipedia, now I find myself signing up as an author, yet am at a loss for how to improve many of my favorite topics either by editing or adding content.
    Obviously there is enormous and amazingly accurate computing power that wikipedia is harnessing in the brains of hundreds or thousands of collaborators.
    I agree with your current asessments and suspect that with time Wikipedia will
    1) have many times more entry coverage than traditional encyclopediae (why limit the topicspace?)
    2) the quality measured by errors will exceed that of others (you cant compete with having orders of magnitude more editors)
    3)depth of entries including rich media will be impressive with so many contributors and fewer and fewer restrictions
    4) accessibility issues related to professional structuring of topic introductions will be compensated for by copious crosslinking and
    5) major bias will tend to be removed from the system by competing biases parties and the consensus should remain
    A question to be solved when wikipedia reaches critical popularity: will the system succumb to wikibombs and wikiviruses, and various methods of information warfare?

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