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Wikipedia/Britannica Debate Misses the Point

Library Garden pointed me to this article (from the Sept 12th issue of the Wall Street Journal). In it Jimmy Wales, the founder and chairman of Wikipedia, and Dale Hoiberg, the senior vice president and editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, converse about the relative value of their products and their business models.

The format of the article is reproductions of emails the two men sent back and forth in the format of a long-distance debate. And it doesn’t take long for the tone to take on a certain heated quality… At one point Hoiberg accuses Wales of being “sneaky” by including a link to Wikipedia in one of his previous responses. To this Wales replies (deliberately simplifying the accusation of sneakiness?):

Sneaky? I beg to differ. On the Internet it is possible and desirable to enhance the understanding of the reader by linking directly to resources to enhance and further understanding.

Temper, temper my dear Wales. No need to be snide.

This is all beside the point, though. The major defect of the debate quarrel presented is that while they each couch of their arguments in terms of quality and value, neither of them recognizes that quality and value only exist in context. Here’s their quarrel in a nutshell:

Wales: “My product is better!”

Hoiberg: “No, MY product is better!”

Wales: “My product allows linking.”

Hoiberg: “Your writers are stupid.”

Wales: “Well… My product allows linking. And besides, my product is better.”

This is all well and good, but imagine this, if you will. I go to the doctor for the results of some tests. He tells me I’ve got heart disease but offers me encouraging news: there’s a new drug on the market which has a 100% cure rate. Imagine my disappointment when I find out that this new drug is designed to cure mumps. It may be extremely valuable to mumps sufferers, but it does me absolutely no good at all.

I’m not saying either Wikipedia or Britannica can cure you of heart disease or mumps. In fact, I’ve never heard of either of them curing any disease. But where Britannica is of the highest quality for some research, Wikipedia beats it hands down on such subjects as superheros and cult movies. Wikipedia also provides a glimpse of what people think is important at the moment, and in that way is a useful tool for the study of popular thought. I might add that Britannica’s entries on Pluto are woefully out of date, through no fault of its own. So also Wikipedia provides a good starting place for the study of very current events.

The point is this: your research needs determine which reference source (or any source, for that matter) is valuable.

Now I just wish I could teach all my students to be able to tell which they need, how to use them appropriately, and when not to use each.

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  1. Peter Bromberg Peter Bromberg

    I completely agree that quality and value are highly contextual. I’d like to add a little more context.

    You suggest that research needs determine which reference source is valuable. True, but while research needs certainly factor into which source(s) library users choose, there are other factors at play, not least of which is “how much time do I have?” and its corollary, “how much is good enough?”

    The fact is, library users can pop onto google, throw in a few key words and often come up with a hit, courtesy of Wikipedia, that pretty much satisfies (or satisfices) their information need. The information on Wikipedia is generally pretty good, which is generally good enough. Perhaps more importantly, Wikipedia articles are quickly and easily findable. Oh, and they’re free. Therefore, a trip to Britannica is almost always going to involve more time, effort, and (possibly) expense. That’s a lot of context! I’m not making a value judgment about it, just trying to flesh out the picture a little bit.

    PS, love the blog :-)

  2. Iris Iris

    You’re right, Peter. Context is one of those expandable concepts that test my comfort with infinity.

    The trick is having enough research savvy to know when your not satisficed. (Oh, that’s a word I promise never to write again! How ugly.) I am perfectly comfortable using Wikipedia, and using it frequently. But I know a lot more about what’s in it and what’s in other reference works than do many of my students.

    On the other hand, a year ago I couldn’t have said that because I had no clue what was in Wikipedia, but I had no intention of finding out. I assumed that I’d find half-baked and half-true entiries.

    Many of my students, on the other hand, assume that non-Wikipedia sources are hard to use. My goal is for these students to become familiar enough with non-Wikipedian research to know when they want one or the other. I want them to be able to put aside their assumptions and make informed decisions.

    I guess I’m saying, just as you are, that it’s more complicated than it seems. We’re not just debating sources; we’re struggling with the whole of information literacy.

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