Britannica responds to Nature

Three months after the prestigious science journal Nature published a comparison of the accuracy of 42 science articles in the online version of Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia (see archived story), Encyclopædia Britannica Inc (EBI) has published a response to the study. The 20-page open letter, titled "Fatally Flawed", was published in PDF format and linked from the "EB News" box at on 22 March. (An HTML version is also available.)

According to the Associated Press, an email from Patricia A. Ginnis (Senior Vice President at EBI) was sent to 5000 customers pointing towards the PDF file. The Wall Street Journal [1] said that EBI will also publish half-page-advertisements[2] defending their position on Monday 27 March in a group of English newspapers.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. denounced the Nature study, stating that "almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading," and called for the journal to make a public retraction of the article. EBI criticized Nature for rearranging, reediting, and excerpting Britannica articles; mistakenly identifying inaccuracies; reviewing texts that were not part of the encyclopedia proper; failing to fact-check the inaccuracies its reviewers cited; and misrepresenting its findings in the article headline and in the editorial which accompanied the news article.

EBI then went on to detail their disputes with about half of the errors found by Nature, in many cases simply rejecting the criticism outright. They indirectly acknowledged that the other half of the errors were correctly identified, and Tom Panelas, EBI spokesman, was quoted as stating that some of the errors were already known but so far had not been corrected. Neither Nature nor EBI identified how long these errors had been known at Britannica.

The Associated Press story about the dispute was widely covered in the mass media (see further press coverage).

Nature's response

On 23 March, the staff of Nature published a similar PDF document, responding to EBI's accusations of "misrepresentation, sloppiness and indifference to scholarly standards". Nature firmly rejected those accusations, and stood by their belief that the comparisons were fairly made; they do not plan to make any retractions.

Nature says that EBI objected privately to the article when it was first published, but that after they (and Wikipedia) were given access to the reviewer's comments a few weeks after publication, the journal "did not receive any further correspondence until the publication of its open letter", and says it regrets the public and acrimonious nature of this exchange.

One of EBI's most vigorous objections is that the reviewers were given short excerpts of longer Britannica articles, or versions taken from their Student Encyclopedia or from past editions of their Book of the Year (which, by design, includes more personal opinion and theory than the standard EB article). Nature countered that on each website, researchers compiled whatever material was presented to them upon searching for the scientific term in question, and that the student and yearbook editions appear prominently in Britannica's search results.

EBI is correct that the study undertaken by Nature was not one of their usual, rigorously peer-reviewed scientific articles; it was a more informal survey made by journalists on their news staff, and published in their news section, separate from the articles at the heart of the journal. However, Nature says that while some editorial judgement was involved in turning reviewers' comments into numerical scores, that judgement was applied "diligently and fairly" to both encyclopedias, and that "because the reviewers were blind to the source of the material they were evaluating, and material from both sources was treated the same way, there is absolutely no reason to think that any errors they made would have systematically altered the results of our inquiry."

Wikipedia's response

Neither founder Jimmy Wales nor the collective staff of Wikipedia have made a public response to EBI's accusations. They have, however, gathered some reference information for Wikimedia Foundation volunteer press representatives to use in answering media questions. That document notes a project to correct all Wikipedia errors noted in the Nature study, created on 22 December, the day Nature released the data. Thirty-four days later, on 25 January, all errors were reported corrected (see archived story).

The document also says, in part, "Wikipedia, and all Wikimedia Foundation projects, are not in competition with EBI or other companies in the business of reference works. Our goals differ significantly from other reference publishers, and only overlap in that we are all striving to create accurate and useful knowledge tools."

+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.

WP, Britannica rivalry?

Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica have long been rivals, with Britannica representing all paper encyclopedias (including World Book, and many others). Founder Jimmy Wales (user page) has expressed his opinion about Britannica: "I would view them as a competitor, except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within 5 years." [1] Sure enough, all the errors pointed out were corrected (see archived story).

Are WP and Britannica really acknowledged rivals? I feel like I've heard editors, and maybe Wales, say they shouldn't be rivals. And the Jimbo quote above is in the "attributed" section on Wikiquotes, not the "sourced" section. --Allen 03:29, 27 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Agreed; I don't think that should be in the final article. I'm settling down to work on it a bit tonight. — Catherine\talk 03:55, 27 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Wikipedia is larger in scope, and broader in its attention; it can be so because it does not have a printed format to fit. That people can add or edit articles on areas of narrow interest has its strengths and weaknesses. People of intense knowledge of certain matters that have few possible readers can get published. Perhaps relatively few people would read an article on a short, little-used highway or some politician of only local interest, but Encyclopedia Britannica would never publish such an article; such articles would make any published encyclopedia unwieldy. Above all, any article, especially an article, can be altered quickly to reflect some change in a major fact, such as a personal death.

Someone in Ohio might be interested in its governors or in a description of one of its highways or political units. For that Wikipedia does what no published encyclopedia could ever do. To be sure, some of the articles are vanity pieces, and I confess to creating some of them. Someone might want to find out a few things about supposed low-brow entertainments, as in pop music, television, or movies. Encyclopaedia Britannica seems to miss those by choice -- a reasonable choice.

Where is Encyclopaedia Britannica more suitable? Encyclopaedia Britannica has more recognized, scholarly writers, and its prose is more predictable. One negative is, of course, that Encyclopaedia Britannica is more easily plagiarized without modification. Another is that any printed book cannot have links that make skipping from one topic within an article to another more difficult. Any printed book of changing knowledge of course becomes obsolete quickly, whether it is an encyclopedia, a road atlas, or even a dictionary. Encyclopaedia Britannica can and must make editorial decisions on what is important and what isn't. It can judge -- indeed it has no choice except to judge -- what its users most want, and one doesn't buy Encyclopaedia Britannica in any form (whether in book form or on a disk) to get all knowledge, including all trivial matters, that one might want. Those who seek a filter of articles so that their children or other sensitive people can avoid access to materials of potential offense (as in crime, sexuality, or political extremism) would do far better with Encyclopedia Britannica, which exercises more control over its content.

The contrast is more rightly between Wikipedia on line and Encyclopedia on disk or on line. It is likely that because of the computer one can keep the Encyclopedia Britannica in its twenty-five or so volumes as a show of respect for one of the best and accessible repositories of knowledge of wide importance that has ever existed. Wikipedia could never be published in book form.

But the twenty-some book volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica is likely to disappear. A computer alone and a disk that contains the content of Encyclopaedia Britannica together costs less than the set of books, and that reality itself is a good cause for getting a computer instead of the 20-odd book set. I consider Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia not so much competitors as compliments. One can and should use both. For topics of wide knowledge one must use something like Encyclopedia Britannica or one of its obvious competitors as well as Wikipedia if one chooses to use Wikipedia. On more obscure, arcane, or provincial topics, it's Wikipedia or nothing. -- 06:45, 2 April 2006 (UTC)[reply]

See also

Also of note: Nature's response, and a press release from the Wikimedia Communications Committee. – Minh Nguyễn (talk, contribs) 08:20, 27 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Fixing errors

We've fixed all our errors, but something not mentioned is that Britannica has apparently fixed all their errors as well. Of course, print versions are stagnant, and the new versions may or may not be online right now, but one needs to recognize that Britannica is not utterly stagnant: more so than Wikipedia, certainly, but today's EB, for example, is not recognizable to many earlier editions. zafiroblue05 | Talk 07:30, 28 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]

Is this true? I thought some of them still weren't fixed. Ral315 (talk) 19:11, 28 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]
Ours, or theirs? -- ALoan (Talk) 19:34, 28 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]
Methinks the point is that neither should claim to be "definitive", a point talk:Falkland Islands#Some Data (again) reminded me of when we found that Britannica online still claims they're officially Colony of the Falkland Islands when they became a British overseas territories in 2002. Well, they were right a few years ago. At least Wikipedia's more dynamic about getting things wrong. ....dave souza, talk 19:14, 30 March 2006 (UTC)[reply]


Why is Brittanica taking offense that it was compared to Wikipedia? They interpret Wikipedia as a terrible, trash-worthy source. Maybe instead of taking the article as an attack on them, Britannica should take it as a compliment on Wikipedia. 13:17, 3 April 2006 (UTC)[reply]

The comparison is not so much the issue as the fact that the Nature article found fewer errors in a subset of Wikipedia articles than in the Britannica articles on the same subjects. This makes Britannica appear to be worse than "a terrible, trash-worthy source"; if that were true, it would certainly constitute reason for taking offense. -- MatthewDBA 13:33, 3 April 2006 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0