15 December 2005

Wikipedia science comparable to Encyclopedia Brittanica

Yes, you read that right. The free online open-source encyclopedia better known as Wikipedia has nearly as good science as the expensive, highly-edited Encyclopedia Brittanica. This was according to peer review organized by Nature magazine.

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.
In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.


The biggest weakness in Wikipedia appears to be its structure.

Nature said its reviewers found that Wikipedia entries were often poorly structured and confused.
"But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written," Tom Panelas, director of [Encyclopedia Britannica] corporate communications is quoted as saying in Nature.

"There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor."


Meanwhile, nature claims the articles it chose were "on subjects that represented a broad range of scientific disciplines," (Nature.com), but I beg to differ. If you look at the list, there's a lot more from biology than all the physical sciences combined, and there are mere token entries for math (Wolfram, Pythagoras’ theorem) and engineering/technology (field effect transistor), and I don't see any for the social sciences (though one can debate whether there should have been). Also interestingly, despite my background being strongly NOT biology, I know more about the biology things listed (Cambrian explosion, Punctuated equilibrium) than a number of those physics things they DO bother to mention (cavity magnetron). Who picked these articles anyway? There is a single astronomy article listed (Chandrasekhar) FYI, though one could again argue that it's astrophysics, a branch of physics.

And amusingly, the Wikipedia ones that Nature found errors in have little tag marks at the top. :)


Samit said...

How can they even compare the both? There is a world of difference btn them

zandperl said...

Wikipedia's stated goal is to have a product that is as good as a traditional encyclopedia. As I understand it, Nature just printed out the text of the pages on a certain day and sent that to the reviewers.

Of course the process creating each is different, but the product is definitely possible to compare.

Thomas Siefert said...

On the topic, but slightly off. You will not find such a great coverage of Star Trek and Futurama in any other ---pedia. Perhaps a reflection of the people who contribute.
Wikipedia is my most used reference for most anything I can think of.

zandperl said...

I also start at Wikipedia most every time I need more info. I then follow its links if I need more detail.

The one exception is for math - I find the Wikipedia math-related articles to be way too in-depth for me to comprehend, despite my math bachelor's degree! For math I usually google the term, and then end up at the respective Wolfram page. I think from now on I'll just start there.

Anonymous said...

I love wikipedia, even when it's wrong.

Check out this joint wikipedia/google search thingy
I made for a home page.