Britannica vs. Wikipedia: you can’t win if you don’t play

Recently I’ve become a nearly daily Wikipedia user, and I have to say that I find the assertions of Wikipedia’s quality to be overstated. Although I’ve rarely noticed outright errors, almost every article includes at least some examples of poor organization, unclear writing, major omissions, or obsessive attention to trivia.

I’d like to do my own personal A-B test of Wikipedia vs. Britannica, but the sad fact is that the information I need on a regular basis just isn’t in Britannica. The problem isn’t limited to Britannica’s eschewing of pop culture or lag time in covering technology. Last week I needed to look up a grab-bag of information studies theories that came up in class (Bradford’s Law, Zipf’s Law, Lotka’s Law, Bates’ Model of Berrypicking). The only one of them mentioned in Britannica at all was Zipf, who got three sentences in an article on linguistics, with no mention of how Zipf applies in information studies, media, culture, economics, or biology. Wikipedia had full articles, however imperfect, on three of the four (omitting only Bates).

Forget authority vs. populism: Britannica can’t possibly compete with Wikipedia if it doesn’t even cover the topics people need and want.

(Not to mention free one-click access vs. a subscription-only service locked up behind cumbersome authentication…)

2 thoughts on “Britannica vs. Wikipedia: you can’t win if you don’t play

  1. I think a big problem is that many of us point out Wikipedia’s poor organization, etc., but then don’t take the 15 seconds to fix an error or improve its organization. I’m continually astonished by some of the gaps regarding Latin America, but then I don’t go in and patch them up.

  2. You’re right about that, Oso!

    Although the kind of organizational and editing problems I’m thinking of would take a lot more than 15 seconds to patch. In fact, 15-second patches may do more harm than good when it comes to keeping a coherent structure in articles.

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