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Can Britannica Rule the Web?

Susan Notes:

As a kid, I did not grow up with the Encyclopedia Britannica. My family went with the cheaper Book of Knowledge, which my father found at a flea market. I loved those books. . . can still "feel" the wonderful smoothness of the pages.

The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is generally regarded as the last "authoritative" work. Yes, much of it is dated but it contains articles, sometimes book length, by best-known scholars of the time: such as Edmund Gosse, Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Muir, Peter Kropotkin, T. H. Huxley, and so on. According to Wikipedia, "Among the then lesser-known contributors were some who would later become distinguished, such as Ernest Rutherford and Bertrand Russell,"

Anyway, in my first year of teaching in upstate New York, I noticed a set of Encyclopedia Britannica on the trash heap. Noticing it was the 11th edition, I asked, "Are you really dumping it?" They replied it was out of date and besides, two volumes were missing. I lugged it home--and a couple of years later we found a partial set in a used bookstore in Vermont that contained our missing volumes.

By L. Gordon Crovitz

How would you have written the encyclopedia entry about last week's news that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published in 1768, has stopped putting out a printed version? The media naturally focused on this fact aloneâ€"the loss of the printed volume. The more interesting story is whether Britannica can survive online.

Those of us who grew up with the leather volumes tend toward nostalgia. In the pre-digital era, Britannica was the definitive way to impart and search information. The surprise is that for many people Britannica remains a key way to find authoritative knowledge online at a time when Wikipedia is a top-10 website.

In the peak year of 1990, 120,000 sets of the printed Britannica were sold; only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold. Yet a company representative says 500,000 subscribers pay some $70 a year for unlimited access to its website. This means that despite the free alternative of Wikipedia, more people pay to access Britannica online annually than paid for the print version in any year. The company estimates that "tens of millions of people around the world" also have access to the online version through their library, school or college.

This is remarkable considering the great success of Wikipedia, which covers many more topicsâ€"in English, four million versus the Britannica's fewer than 100,000â€"by letting anyone post or update entries, with mostly volunteer editors vetting the results. Britannica hopes there is a place for a brand that claims to be authoritative instead of crowd-sourced.

Britannica has 100 full-time editors who have worked with contributors over the years such as Albert Einstein, Milton Friedman and Alfred Hitchcock (who replied "98.6" when asked by Britannica to list his degrees on its contributor information form). Britannica's marketing division says, "There's no such thing as a bad questionâ€"but there are bad answers." In 2008, company president Jorge Cauz told the New Yorker, "Wikipedia is to Britannica as 'American Idol' is to the Juilliard School." (This quote appears in the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Cauz.)

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: Encyclopedia Britannica editions are seen at the New York Public Library on March 14, 2012 in New York City. Encyclopedia Britannica announced it will be ceasing its print edition of reference books for the first time in its 244-year history to focus solely on digital versions. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) <> on March 14, 2012 in New York City.

An anecdotal comparison of Britannica and Wikipedia shows the value of the premium source, but also the generally high quality of the crowd-sourced edition. The Britannica entry on itself comes to 30 pages when printed out, while Wikipedia has 23 pages; Britannica covers Wikipedia in three pages while Wikipedia has 39 pages on itself. The Wikipedia entry on the solar system, at 23 pages, is twice as long as the Britannica version. Evolution has a 61-page entry in the Britannica, by a University of California scholar, while Wikipedia has 44 pages, including an exhaustive 288 footnotes.

Still, length is not always the best indicator of value. Britannica has a well-crafted, six-page entry on economist Friedrich Hayek, for example, compared with a 15-page Wikipedia entry that includes random anecdotes alongside more serious analysis, reflecting the group wiki-effort based on consensus rather than a unified approach to a topic.

On the other hand, if you're more interested in actress Salma Hayek, Britannica has less than one page ("known for her sultry good looks and intelligence"), compared with Wikipedia's 11 pages, which include exhaustive detail on her films, TV appearances and charitable work. If you're interested in the foot ailment Morton's Neuroma, Wikipedia has a more complete entry than the Mayo Clinic's, and Britannica has none.

The Wikimedia Foundation that oversees Wikipedia has its own worries. Its strategic plan, posted online, says its biggest risk is the declining number of volunteer editors. Many entries include cautions that the reliability of information hasn't been confirmed. "Declining participation is by far the most serious problem facing the Wikimedia projects," the group says. "The success of the projects is entirely dependent upon a thriving, healthy editing community."

Another related issue: "Risk of editorial scandal can't be mitigated; there is an inherent level of risk that we cannot sidestep." This is especially true as Wikipedia adds new languages and countries, including many that censor results. It's not clear that the volunteer model is sustainable, though few would have imagined that Wikipedia could grow to have a goal for this year of serving one billion online readers with 50 million articles in some 280 languages.

Britannica remains a profitable business, especially after dropping its print version, but to survive it will have to be the most accurate sourceâ€"and make the case that authoritative sources matter. For Wikipedia, the challenge is whether volunteers can sustain what has become the world's largest compendium of facts and sometimes knowledge.

As usual in this Internet era, consumers have the best of both worlds: They can choose to rely only on Wikipedia, or they also pay for Britannica and its online scholarship. Even without the printed Britannica, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. We should all hope that neither Britannica nor Wikipedia will ever have to write the other's obituary.

— L. Gordon Crovitz
Wall Street Journal


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