For 241 years, it’s been the gold standard of reference books, a premium-priced digest of the world’s accumulated knowledge. Now it’s being overwhelmed by an eight-year-old online upstart authored by amateurs and available at no charge. How can Encyclopaedia Britannica survive in a wiki world?
The venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica is preparing for the most radical overhaul in its 241-year history, and it’s recruiting its readers to do much of the work.
It’s a bid by Britannica to remain relevant at a time when the world’s most popular encyclopedia, the eight-year-old website Wikipedia, is written entirely by amateur experts. The new version of Britannica Online, set to debut this summer, will emulate the Wikipedia concept by letting subscribers make changes to any article, ranging from minor edits to near-total rewrites.
But Britannica president Jorge Cauz scoffs at the idea that he’s merely imitating his giant online rival. “I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that Britannica and Wikipedia are becoming more similar,” he said. While Wikipedia is written and edited by amateurs who often work anonymously, Britannica Online articles will be overseen by professional editors. In addition, there will be no anonymity: Authors and editors will be identified by name. Cauz said this will give Britannica Online articles a credibility and authority Wikipedia can’t match.
If Wikipedia’s credibility is lower than Britannica’s, users don’t seem to mind. With its 10 million articles – 2.7 million in English – and its 275 million readers per month, Wikipedia’s scale and popularity dwarf that of Britannica’s online edition, which serves just 200,000 households and offers just 112,000 articles.
Wikipedia grew so popular partly because it’s free, while Britannica Online charges $70 a year. And Wikipedia’s array of articles is so vast because anybody can write for it. Only paying subscribers will be eligible to write for Britannica Online.
Cauz concedes that Britannica will never have as many articles as Wikipedia. But he said many Wikipedia articles are about trivial topics Britannica has no interest in covering. “They can talk about porno actors and cartoon characters as well as heart attacks,” said Cauz. “That is something we will never do.”
Instead, Britannica will still focus on its core market: schools, libraries, and homes, where people need authoritative information on important topics.
Britannica still prints a traditional multivolume encyclopedia and other reference works, but about 75 percent of the company’s revenue come from online sales. Privately held Britannica won’t reveal its revenue and earnings numbers, but Cauz said the company has turned a profit for the past five years.
The upgraded encyclopedia is set to debut this summer, but a test version is already up and running. Users who open an article are given an editing option that turns the Web browser into a mini word processor, where they can make small or large revisions. These changes are submitted to a Britannica editor, and perhaps to the article’s author.
“We have full responsibility,” said Cauz. “Every article will have to go through the rigorous editorial review of Britannica.” If the changes pass muster, they’re added to the official Britannica article, and the name of the user who made the changes is published on the website.
Cauz noted Britannica Online will allow edits of all its articles. Ironically, this will give Britannica a more open editing policy than Wikipedia’s. Despite its reputation for openness, Wikipedia permanently “locks” some articles on controversial people and subjects to prevent changes. “We want to stop . . . what we call drive-by vandalism,” said Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales.
Indeed, since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia has gradually tightened its standards, according to Andrew Lih, a Wikipedia editor and author of a new book, “The Wikipedia Revolution.”
“When it was first started, it was completely open editing,” Lih said. “Over the years, they’ve started to put more restrictions on it, simply because as you have a larger and larger crowd, it attracts more vandals.”
For example, about 3,000 articles are “semiprotected,” meaning that they can only be modified by Wikipedia users who have been members of the site for more than four days. Wales said he’s not entirely happy with this limitation. “One of the problems with semiprotection,” he said, “is that it’s difficult for newcomers to get involved.”
The German edition of Wikipedia addressed this problem by using “flagged revisions” of sensitive articles. These can be freely modified by anybody, even Wikipedia newcomers. But the modifications are flagged for review by a trusted editor before being published.
Now Wales plans to introduce flagged revisions to the English-language version of Wikipedia. He called it “an effort to open up pages to public editing that we have not had open to public editing for several years.”
If flagged editing works, it will make Wikipedia more open to public revision. But since some articles will remain locked, Wikipedia still won’t be quite as open to revision as Britannica Online.
Another addition to Britannica Online will come even closer to the original Wikipedia model. Cauz said Britannica subscribers and authors of articles for the encyclopedia will be given access to a separate area, where they can write articles on any topic they choose. When a Britannica Online user searches for information on a topic, links to these independent articles will appear alongside the official Britannica article. Each article will carry the names of its author and anyone who’s edited it, but there will be no review by Britannica editors, and the company won’t vouch for its accuracy.
Its critics say Wikipedia’s good name has been damaged by poorly written or libelous articles posted on the site. Britannica’s new feature could put its own reputation on the line. But determined to reinvent itself, Britannica is taking the risk.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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