Wikipedia has been matched up against other online encyclopedias in a new test, but with somewhat different results. In contrast to the Nature study last December, whose validity the Encyclopædia Britannica contested after it showed Wikipedia content was comparable but slightly more error-prone than Britannica’s, this comparison actually rated Wikipedia ahead.
The comparison appeared in the May issue of the monthly science and technology magazine BBC Focus, which reached newsstands last week. It was based on the reviews of a virologist on the topic of bird flu (specifically the article on the H5N1 strain), an engineering expert on railway designer George Stephenson, and an astronomer for the coverage of planetesimals. Besides Wikipedia and the Encyclopædia Britannica, the other sources tested were Encarta and InfoPlease.com, which uses the Columbia Encyclopedia and is, like Wikipedia, free of charge to users. In addition, the journalist working on the project evaluated the usability of each encyclopedia's website.
With respect to bird flu, virologist Richard Elliot deemed Wikipedia's entry more up-to-date than its competitors', but did note that its terminology section was "confused and contains errors". The reviewer of the Stephenson article was impressed by its detail, noting that it was the only one to point out that Stephenson was responsible for the standard gauge used on most of the world's railways. Despite the praise, this article would not qualify for featured article status at present, because it contains no references.
Astronomer Duncan Steel criticized the Planetesimal article for "confusing statements that contain factual errors and punctuation outrages". However, he described his main beef with Wikipedia as being an unrelated issue, its coverage of asteroids. Specifically, he mentioned the lack of an article on Arrius, which he named for his younger son, whereas an article already existed for Elbsteel, named for his eldest son. As Steel observed, "This causes arguments at home!" The oversight was rectified by VampWillow after the story appeared.
Overall, Wikipedia was the only encyclopedia in the test to be rated 4/5, or "Good". Britannica and Encarta were each given a 3/5 ("Average"), and InfoPlease only a 2/5 ("Dodgy"). The article's summary pointed out that, because all the encyclopedias had errors and omissions, "they should be viewed as starting points for your research rather than as all-encompassing fountains of knowledge". But it concluded that Wikipedia, although "only marginally more accurate", is, because of its number of articles and ability to incorporate current news, "most likely to have what you need".
Whether Wikipedia competes directly with Britannica and the others is a matter of some dispute; Britannica officials have recently tried to emphasize that, whatever Wikipedia's merits, the two are not truly comparable. However, the prospect of competition for Wikipedia also came up in another context last week—this time, as an argument for network neutrality. This issue is the focus of considerable lobbying in the United States Congress, and provides another instance of a politician's invoking Wikipedia (for previous examples, see this archived story).
In this case, the politician was U.S. Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. In a blog at The Huffington Post, Markey wrote in support of maintaining network neutrality. Arguing that to do otherwise would allow phone companies to discriminate on an economic basis, he asked "Would Wikipedia have earned its current prominence if it had to compete against a commercial alternative with inferior content, but that users could access faster?"
Presumably, Markey was speaking hypothetically, not describing the current situation, in which Wikipedia users still occasionally encounter access difficulties. And, the latest study notwithstanding, some of the commercial competitors undoubtedly would hotly contest whether they can fairly be described as having "inferior content".