Encyclopaedia Britannica To Follow Modified Wikipedia Model
In a bid to wed the comprehensive, grassroots information factory of Wikipedia with the authority of the traditional encyclopedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica is opening the floodgates for online user submissions into its 240-year-old publication -- a move it long resisted and sniffed was akin to intellectual pollution.
What Britannica wants to do, on the other hand, is create "a welcoming community for scholars, experts, and lay contributors," it said in an announcement last week.
Once a staple of many homes, the encyclopedia has become increasingly irrelevant in the internet age. A shelf of leather-bound books may look fabulous but, almost by definition, it becomes obsolete the moment it is published (you can look it up). Oh yeah -- and they are way expensive.
While it lacks the gravitas of gold leaf and feel of fine paper, the world has turned in droves to Google's simple search box. And now that Wikipedia has reached a point of relative maturity, there's even less of a reason for people to look to printed encyclopedias for information.
But scholars, journalists and researchers have been loathe to use Wikipedia for official citations. The same open-source culture that allows it to be current has also made it subject to vandalism and patently false entries.
Britannica is going halfway to where it's never gone before: it is opening up its site to the crowd, but keeping the gates up against the barbarians as far as the official version of the publication concerned.
By editing all changes to its core base of information before they are posted online, Britannica, which has been online since 1994, hopes to create a trusted source that takes into account the input of the crowd. Members of the company's community of scholars and registered users will be able to post about new topics without intervention, but the company says all articles on new topics will be fact-checked and vetted before appearing in the main edition.
Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications, explained to Wired.com that the new site will include three main categories of content: content created by the site's existing community of experts, content created by users and Encyclopaedia Britannica itself, which will incorporate aspects of the first two once they have achieved a "Checked by Britannica" designation.
The newly redesigned site will differ from Wikipedia in other key ways, according to Britannica's blog. Anyone will be able to publish articles under their own name, including the scholars and experts who have traditionally provided new content to the publication. Imagine Wikipedia mashed with Linked In (see image above).
To incent experts to contribute, Encyclopaedia Britannica will offers some sort of rewards system in addition to giving them a place to "showcase and publish their various works-in-progress," although Panelas would not disclose details about the incentive program.
"Encyclopaedia Britannica has long been written by a community of scholars from all over the world, and this distinguished group of people has always been one of our greatest assets," reads a note in its blog. "Today it is possible to increase the strength and size of this community online and to provide its members with incentives to become involved with Britannica on a more sustained and consistent basis."
The new, interactive version of Encyclopaedia Britannica is already online in beta form. Its features are scheduled to appear on the main site in the coming weeks and months, according to the company.
As much as the world might need something like this, one can see ardent Wikipedia supporters decrying Encyclopaedia Britannica's move, since it attempts to make private what Wikipedia makes public (information ownership). If that's the case, Britannica editors may have their hands full wading through bogus submissions.
Here, we see the new edit mode:
And here's what the edit history looks like:
There is no word of the Britannica news in its extensive Wikipedia entry. But there is an expression of great respect:
The articles in the Britannica are aimed at educated adult readers, and written by a staff of 19 full-time editors and over 4,000 expert contributors. It is widely perceived as the most scholarly of encyclopaedias.
Wikipedia doesn't have its facts straight in this instance, according to Panelas. "That's wrong," he told Wired.com. "The (correct) figure (for full time editors) is about 100."