Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Internet encyclopedias break all the rules

Duff: These days, encyclopedias face competition that breaks all the rules

Everybody knows what an encyclopedia is. It’s a 50-pound collection of paper and cowhide, slowly aging on your bookshelf, oblivious to changes in culture, politics and world geography. For decades, the encyclopedia has remained constant, quietly taking up space in the living room, dusted off to settle bets and contribute to school reports.

But now the encyclopedia is changing, and the grand old encyclopedia companies are facing a new kind of competition. It’s called Wikipedia, and it breaks all the rules. Historically, encyclopedias have been cloistered, academic exercises. Wikipedia accepts contributions from anyone and is edited by a core group of volunteers.

In 2005, the journal Nature submitted a variety of encyclopedia articles for peer review. They found an equal number of serious errors between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the realm of less serious errors, Wikipedia led with 162, while Britannica had 123.

But all errors are not equal, and Wikipedia is subject to bias in ways that conventional encyclopedias are not. Wikipedia runs into trouble when it tries to cover controversial topics – when multiple editors advocate conflicting points of view.

Conspiracy theorists have tried to hijack Wikipedia’s coverage of the Kennedy assassination, and podcast pioneer Adam Curry was accused of deleting segments to hide the contributions of others.

The Wikipedia entry for Lubbock looks pretty solid. If any sharp-eyed readers want to take a crack at it, use your favorite search engine to look for “Wikipedia Lubbock” and share your findings in my blog.

That brings us to the next major complaint against Wikipedia: the notion that most of its scholarship is plagiarized, copied without permission from legitimate encyclopedias. Wikipedia has its problems, but it does excel in one field. Wikipedia does a great job covering things that aren’t deemed respectable enough for mainstream encyclopedias.

Wikipedia may not be the best place to find facts about the Kennedy assassination, but if you’re looking for “Star Wars” trivia or biographies of anime characters, Wikipedia’s coverage is superb. Wikipedia is great for trivia and pop culture, but if you’re looking for something to help Junior with his school reports, buy Encarta on CD-ROM.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

August 10, 2007 at 14:50

Posted in Columns

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