The New York Times ran a nice little commentary Tuesday on the factual reliability of Wikipedia, the collaborative online reference to everything, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the hoary compendium of everything worth knowing. The Times mostly recapitulates the findings of a study published last month in Nature that compared science entries in the Wikipedia, which depends on community writing and editing, and Britannica, which relies on subject experts for its authority. An encyclopedia open to all comers to add to and alter at will would seem fraught with risk and likely to be rife with errors compared to a work created under strict editorial control. But the Nature study sampled 42 entries in both works and found that Wikipedia articles contained four errors per article on average; Britannica articles contained an average of three errors.
I’ve made my living in a media culture that believes in the importance of accuracy and quality and refinement — qualities best obtained, it is widely believed, by employing someone like me. At the same time, I’ve lived in terror of the blind, witless blunder that makes it into print; either under my name or worse, by my hand under someone else’s name. The fear comes from having learned that editorial perfection is a moving target: The state of knowledge on most subjects is ever evolving and changing. One minute someone has never had sex with that woman, Miss What’s-Her-Name; the next they’re apologizing for the sex they had with her. Follow that? It’s not so different, really, from trying to keep your facts straight on politics, history, religion, science, or theories of modern marketing. The best you can do is aim to be correct at a given moment and be ready to reassess your work the minute you see it out in the world.
So it’s not surprising to find the Encyclopaedia Britannica isn’t the unassailable tower of knowledge some of us might like to believe it is. What’s more surprising, to me, is that the masses, turned loose on a universal encyclopedia project, don’t do so badly. The Times’s commentary has a nice simile for how it works:
“It may seem foolish to trust Wikipedia knowing I could jump right in and change the order of the planets or give the electron a positive charge. But with a worldwide web of readers looking over my shoulder, the error would quickly be corrected. Like the swarms of proofreading enzymes that monitor DNA for mutations, some tens of thousands of regular Wikipedians constantly revise and polish the growing repository of information.”
“Thousands of regular Wikipedians” is the key. Editors are important. It’s just that they don’t need a special license or a paycheck from a publisher to do the work passably well.