Report: Wikipedia rivals Britannica on science

The free internet encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, recently embroiled in controversy over a fake entry, comes close in accuracy to the paid-for Encyclopaedia Britannica in its articles on science, the British journal Nature says.

In a report published in this Thursday’s issue, Nature says it gave independent reviewers 42 pairs of articles from both encyclopedias, covering subjects that ranged from Archimedes’ Principle and Dolly the Sheep to field-effect transistors and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The reviewers were not told which article came from where, and were asked to check the entries for accuracy.

“Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia,” Nature reports.

“But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.”

Nature says “Britannica’s advantage [over Wikipedia] may not be great” when it comes to science, and comments that this result is “surprising” given the eclectic way that Wikipedia’s articles are written.

Founded in 2001, Wikipedia is an “open source” of information that asks its users to write, edit and update entries.

In contrast to traditional encyclopedias, there is no hierarchy of experts through which material is vetted before being accepted for publication. Any user can contribute.

Wikipedia has more than two million articles, including more than 850 000 in English. It has sites in 200 languages, 10 with more than 50 000 articles—in English, German, French, Japanese, Polish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.

The United States survey firm Nielsen/Netratings found that Wikipedia had more than 12,7-million US users in September, up nearly 300% from a year ago.
It was ranked as the 35th most popular global website by Alexa.com.

Wikipedia came under criticism when a spoof biography was posted on its site this year purporting to be that of John Siegenthaler, a retired journalist who was an aide in the 1960s to attorney general Robert Kennedy.

The joke entry said: “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”

Wikipedia says it has tightened up procedures in an effort to avoid further abuse, although its policy of open sourcing will not be changed.

Nature says that the science reviewers’ main criticism of Wikipedia was that its articles were often poorly structured and confused, and gave undue prominence to controversial theories.—Sapa-AFP

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