Wikipedia vs Britannica ? Email Debate at WSJ

The debate is open yet again between Wikipedia and Britannica. This time it is not between readers or proponents or bloggers but between the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Dale Hoiberg, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Britannica. The Wall Street Journal Online invited both for this E-Debate over Email.  Check it out here.

The Wall Street Journal Online also hosted a poll asking its readers to vote on the following question: "Does Wikipedia's open-editing approach yield better results than traditional encyclopedias?". At the time of writing, 2654 have voted with 56% says YES while 31% says NO.

It is difficult to say who won the debate or whether the debate is finished at all? But just a little conversation between them without any one clearly making a point or proving some thing right or wrong. 

I rarely visited Britannica online, though I referred to it a lot while in college. Mainly due to the fact that we did not have any alternative and wikipedia did not exist at that time. But after I once came to know about wikipedia, I never visited any other site but wikipedia for any reference.  Critics ramble that people who are writing wikipedia are not experts. But I tend to disagree, based on my experience. All the articles in which I have expertise, they are accurate and most importantly very much up-to-date. And more over, even if there is a slight inaccuracy, it does not matter to me. I do not make mission critical or life changing decisions based on wikipedia or for that matter on britannica. The up-to-date information, openness, free to use and vast coverage of wikipedia are most important to me.   


Mark said…
Its not surprising that an online poll would yield such a positive response to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is built by and for people who favor the Internet. There's an inherent bias in the survey.

The question, too, is vague. What are the results the Wall Street Journal is measuring when it asks "yield better results?"

If its asking which can touch more people, Wikipedia is more attractive to a large segment of its potential users. Create your own knowledge is enticing and plays well to Internet users who believe that the web changes everything -opening doors and bringing down the gates of hierarchy.

If its asking editorially, which produces more accurate entries on facts, Britannica should win hands-down. Its pool of experts are the people which we, as a society, have generally regarded as those who find facts, the keepers of Knowledge (capital K), as it were.

Trusting Wikipedia is a decision to discard the current paradigm of what we know and how we know. Its a choice to adopt a methodology spawned from a technological advancement rather than a methodology proven by centuries of scientific advancement.

I've blogged further on this at
Mark said…
Hi Murali,

I saw your comment on my blog post (

You pointed out some significant differences between the two models, Wikipedia and Britannica. These explain a lot of the appeal of one versus the other.

1) The content and substance of the entries of Wikipedia is decided by a world wide community of readers and editors. This is a paradigm change from a traditional approach to knowledge. It may be true that there are tens of thousands of people who are interested in a subject, know about the subject and have opinions on it. But when someone is looking for information, they may not be interested in the popular or most recent answer. They want something definitive and conclusive -even if its not the most up to date.

If someone wants the most up to date information, they should visit a news site, not an encyclopedia.

2) Many people have said they prefer Wikipedia because it is more up to date. Up to date is not a necessary component of knowledge -it might be critical for the process of determining knowledge, discovery and research. But it is not worth trading off accuracy for latest-greatest. Its ok for there to be open questions and uncertainty. We don't know everything (nor will we). Speculation belongs in the realm of scientific inquiry and the methodology of discovery.

3) Collaboration can be a powerful tool for research and for those people on the Internet who participate in the collaborative of Wikipedia, its a lot of fun. Who doesn't want to feel that their passions matter? But for people who are looking up a quick fact or to learn about something for the first time, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia can be misleading.

Since there is no lock-down on the knowledge and since it is ever morphing, one needs to approach a Wikipedia entry with a grain of salt. People who aren't part of the community don't know that (there's no disclaimer on Wikipedia to that effect).

Maybe we're just talking two different worlds, here.

There is one world, online, where people want to be part of the process of growing knowledge, of being heard and sharing. Knowledge in a particular area, for them, is something maleable and something they use to identify themselves with a community.

Then there is another world, offline, where people just want the facts, as they are. Doesn't have to be latest greatest. Doesn't have to be with a grain of salt. Something straightforward they can learn and then get on with their lives. Knowledge in that particular area, for them, is something they want to find out about, but not something they want to give too much committment to.

[I would've thought that was easy enough, but look at what they did to poor Pluto :) ]

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