Britannica Slams Nature's Wikipedia Comparison - InformationWeek
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3/24/2006
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Britannica Slams Nature's Wikipedia Comparison

In an industry known more for gentility, Encyclopedia Britannica came out swinging like a street fighter, calling on Nature to retract a study that was published in the magazine in December. In comparing online scientific articles from both publications, Nature had said Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica in its coverage of scientific topics.

Encyclopedia Britannica has unleashed an acerbic written attack on the science journal Nature, claiming the magazine's study that found Britannica and online encyclopedia Wikipedia comparably accurate was so "error-laden that it was completely without merit."

In an industry known more for gentility, Britannica came out swinging like a street fighter, calling on Nature to retract the study that was published in the magazine in December. In comparing online scientific articles from both publications, Nature had said that Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica in its coverage of scientific topics.

The findings floored Britannica, which employs 100 staff editors in its Chicago headquarters and works with thousands of contributors and advisers around the world, all scholars and experts in various fields. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is built mostly through the contributions of volunteers, who do not need to have any proven expertise in order to change or contribute articles.

Nature's study followed a serious error reported in Wikipedia in which a well-known journalist and assistant to Robert F. Kenney in the early 1960s was linked to the assassinations of Kennedy and his brother President John F. Kennedy.

In preparing its response to the Nature article, Britannica dedicated 30 editors and advisers from four countries to examine the data used by the magazine. The encyclopedia's conclusion: Almost everything about the magazine's investigation was "wrong and misleading."

"The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit," Britannica said in the response, which was posted on its Web site.

Nature, however, stands by its study, rejecting Britannica's accusations and saying the comparison was fair.

"We do not intend to retract our article," Nature said in a posting on its Web site.

Britannica claimed that dozens of inaccuracies attributed to Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and that a number of articles examined by Nature weren't even in the encyclopedia. Nature disputes these findings.

Theodore Pappas, executive editor for Britannica, on Friday blamed Nature's "extreme enthusiasm for Wikipedia" for what he called the magazine's bias. In publishing the study, Nature, according to Pappas, ran a large photo of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, an editorial praising the online encyclopedia and a podcast interview with Wales.

He also claimed Nature did not provide all the data from the study for Britannica to review before the article was published, and waited until the afternoon before the study hit the news stands to contact the company for comment.

Nature did turn over the data after publishing the study, which was based on inaccuracies experts found in 50 articles of the same topic taken from Wikipedia and Britannica.

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