Britannica lashes out at Wikipedia comparison study

Study by Nature was 'fatally flawed' says Britannica

Tom Sanders in California

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has lashed out at a recent study by Nature which claimed that Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica's accuracy in covering scientific topics. 

Nature compared 50 entries in the online versions of both encyclopaedias and counted 123 inaccuracies in Britannica and 162 in Wikipedia.

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The magazine used a panel of researchers who received texts from the publications without knowing the source and asked them to hunt for errors and omissions.

While Britannica is compiled by a team of paid researchers, Wikipedia relies on the public to enter information and hunt for inaccuracies.

Nature's study was published shortly after several reports emerged about inaccuracies in Wikipedia, which prompted the service to bolster its editing and reviewing guidelines.

Claiming that the Nature study was "fatally flawed", Britannica has published a 20-page rebuttal (PDF download) in which it attempts to discredit the study. 

"The entire undertaking, from the study's methodology to the misleading way that Nature 'spun' the story, was misconceived," the document alleges. "The facts call for a complete retraction of the study and the article in which it was reported."

The Britannica paper highlighted several inconsistencies. Reviewers claiming that Britannica omitted certain information did so because they were presented with excerpts rather than the full entry.

In another case, Nature rearranged and re-edited Britannica articles. A third complaint pointed out that Nature used text from the more basic student edition of the encyclopaedia.

Nature stated that it has no intention of retracting the study. "We feel this was a reasonable characterisation," the scientific publication claimed (PDF download). 

It admitted that some of Britannica's criticism was valid, but replied that both Britannica and Wikipedia were treated in the same way and that any procedural inaccuracies would have affected both publications equally.

"Because the reviewers were blind to the source of the material there is absolutely no reason to think that any errors they made would have systematically altered the results of our inquiry," said the publication.

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