Wikipedia vs. Britannica at the OK Corral

Via Will Richardson:

When I’ve recommended that students use Wikipedia as a resource, I’ve always told them that they can’t trust what they’re reading 100% and that they should always verify their facts with a second source. But do people do the same with the Encyclopedia Britannica?

In case you didn’t see it, The Journal Nature compared 42 entries in Wikipedia to the same 42 entries in Britannica and found the each had four major mistakes, and that on average Britannica had three minor errors in each entry compared to four in Wikipedia.

So can someone explain to me what’s different? Believe me, I’m not saying that the Wikipedia is the greatest resource in the world, but I do believe that students need to apply the same critical thinking skills to print resources that they do to online resources.

By | 2005-12-20T06:28:06+00:00 December 20th, 2005|Musings, Tech|5 Comments

About the Author:


  1. Casey Hales 12/20/2005 at Dec 20, 05 | 11:08 am

    Not sure how to answer your question, but it’s also scary as to the number of inaccuracies in the student’s textbooks both in public education as well as the collegiate level. Where do you tell them to look for the right answer and how do you know if it’s correct?

  2. Ace Emery 12/20/2005 at Dec 20, 05 | 11:50 pm

    What I think is great is the concern for accuracy. I think people forget how totally inaccurate history is! All Wikipedia is history being reported in real time. The people being reported on are actually alive – which is something Brintannica hasn’t had to worry about so much. The fact that the facts are open to debate at all is a testament to what Wikipedia is. In 2080, someone will be reading about Brintannica on Wikipedia, not the other way around.

    So screw the people that are complaining about Wikipedia. They were the same people that said Gutenberg had some typos…


  3. colin 12/21/2005 at Dec 21, 05 | 5:52 am

    “I think people forget how totally inaccurate history is!” Who writes the history? We are always rewriting history, and depends on your outlook. I forgot where I heard it but when did WWII start? Are you sure about that? If you look at it from a German POV it will be different from the American.

  4. Ace Emery 12/21/2005 at Dec 21, 05 | 8:44 am

    You are absolutely right, Colin. History is written by the victors, or at the very least, the most concerned party. Applied to Wikipedia, where history is now, as well as then, history is written before there are any victors, and the combatants get to fight it out virtually. I guess in the case of Wikipedia, history isn’t written by the victor as much as the person who posts loudest and longest.

    To Steve’s point, though. Can Wikipedia be trusted? Can you toss it in a bibliography? And has someone figured out how to format internet references in a bibliography yet? I always got points off for not formatting my bibliography properly….

    I say yes, it can be trusted as far as anything can be trusted, but I am not saying it’s right. Steve said that he wanted his students to apply critical thinking. That’s the key. I remember I had a report due on someone in grade school. I copied the World Book verbatim and got busted for it. I learned from that. Anyone that does that with Wikipedia, will hopefully get busted likewise. But what’s key here is that anyone that is copying anything verbatim is missing the point – and a teacher has failed if that’s the case. Start with Wikipedia, cross reference with Britannica, then throw a couple of subject specific books and maybe a History channel special. Hell – even Dan Brown! Get lots of opinions on everthing. The internet is making this easier and easier as more content gets added. Hopefully the internet as a whole – and not just the scapegoat, wikipedia, will end up being the vehicle for critical thinking and cross referencing.

  5. Katy 12/29/2005 at Dec 29, 05 | 10:38 am

    Just be careful letting your students use Wikipedia – because it is NOT an acceptable college
    resource – so perhaps it is best not to teach your students bad habits.

    Want to see an example of the garbage in Wikipedia – go to the entry for the Leonard Peltier

    I say garbage in, garbage out – and Wikipedia has a wicked propensity for garbage in.

Comments are closed.