Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Encyclopaedia Britannica goes "Wiki", but not quite

Practically every blog post I've read says Britannica (yes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, i.e. EB) is going "wiki".

Although in Britannica's blog post dated 3 June 2008 (yeah, they have a blog too!) they have not used that term anywhere.

My reading of their post is that Britannica Online will remain as it is -- an online website. Embedded with "Web 2.0" tool, perhaps.

But not a "wiki" per se, IF we take the term to be closely associated with Wikipedia's publication model.

Their preferred terms are "participation" and "collaboration".

Quotes from their post (emphasis mine):
Encyclopaedia Britannica is about to launch a new initiative that we’re very enthusiastic about. The main thrust of this initiative is to promote greater participation by both our expert contributors and readers.

Both groups will be invited to play a larger role in expanding, improving, and maintaining the information we publish on the Web under the Encyclopaedia Britannica name as well as in sharing content they create with other Britannica visitors.

A complete redesign, editing tools, and incentive programs will give expert contributors and users the means to take part in the further improvement of Encyclopaedia Britannica and in the creation and publication of their own work.

Notice how EB has reinforced their position that credit is given to contributors and participants, and that it will be the user's "own work".

Definitely in the spirit of Web 2.0, where user participation is welcome and practically a given.

My question at this point: Wikipedia doesn't charge a fee for its use, whereas EB has a pricing model. So how would they handle this without being seen as being exploitative?

EB probably anticipates this point and mentions about incentives, but stops short of specifying what it will be, other than implying the non-financial aspects of collaborative work:
"... we will provide our contributors with a reward system ... that will enable them to promote themselves, their work, and their services; allow them to showcase and publish their various works-in-progress in front of the Britannica audience; and help them find and interact with colleagues around the world."

Here's more:
"Readers and users will also be invited into an online community where they can work and publish at Britannica’s site under their own names.

Interested users will be able to prepare articles, essays, and multimedia presentations on subjects in which they’re interested. Britannica will help them with research and publishing tools and by allowing them to easily use text and non-text material from Encyclopaedia Britannica in their work.

We will publish the final products on our site for the benefit of all readers, with all due attribution and credit to the people who created them. The authors will have the option of collaborating with others on their work, but each author will retain control of his or her own work."

Seems to me EB is deliberately shifting the focus away from saying they will pay contributors, but appealing to other factors like establishing contributors as recognised experts, and access to EB's resources.

It seems that not everyone will get to be contributors to EB. Ultimately, EB will decide who gets to contribute, or at least those who eventually gets published under the EB branding:
"As part of our longstanding tradition, engaging a prominent community of scholars will continue to be a key requirement. With this new site and initiatives we will be able to recruit new members beyond our current contributor base, through recommendations from existing contributors, applications from expert communities, and by inviting select members of our user community."

If you follow their post, you'll get to the part where they mention the distinguishing factors from "other projects of online collaboration":
(1) the active involvement of the expert contributors with whom we already have relationships
(2) the fact that all contributions to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s core content will continue to be checked and vetted by our expert editorial staff before they’re published.

So, it's clear to me the new Britannica website will not be another Wikipedia.

It confirms what I've mentioned at the start of this post: Britannica Online essentially remains as an online resource rather than a collaborative platform per se.

They intend to deploy "Web 2.0" tools, which may involve "wiki" features. But they won't adopt Wikipedia's publication model.

This much is also clarified at this comment, where EB clarifies:
"Though a number of people see this as an effort to compete with Wikipedia, in many ways it’s the opposite of the wiki model in that everyone gets personal credit for his or her own contributions, and you control the future of the work you publish on the site."

My final thoughts:
I look forward to EB's new site. But I don't see it as being radically different from what it's doing.

Of course, EB didn't claim that they will be radically different. They emphasise on how there will be greater participation and collaboration (i.e. from their current model).

I'm not doubting their intents. From a business point of view, I'd say "about time"!

As a student or amateur researcher, I'd welcome it too (retaining exclusivity into the "EB club" is a form of incentive).

But all that being said, I'm not sure is how EB intends to implement the "participation" and "collaboration" part. I went to their Beta site and first impression was that it's still very "EB online" and not "Web 2.0".
Britannica Online Encyclopedia - beta

If "participation" and "collaboration" was the emphasis, then EB needs to make that apparent on the front page.

I'd put a big "Join as a EB contributor" link. And explain more how it works.

I didn't go beyond the main page, so I can only speculate that there are essentially two main "spaces" -- (1) the actual EB website,and (2) the collaborative space for researchers and users to interact. Whatever comes out of Space #2 is filtered back to #1 by the EB staff.

The other thing I'd do is to send out invites to people -- students, academics, bloggers, professionals, teachers, librarians! -- who might want to take part in the Beta. These are your potential users, if not contributors.

EB is a business, and needs a viable business model. So any remarks about it not going the "Wikiepdia Way" is unfair and unrealistic.

But inevitably, EB does have to constantly deal with the fact that it's a reference resource, and there are plenty of alternatives on the Internet whose quality is improving all the time (we librarians should know!)

So I think EB's new site holds some promise.

But seems to me it's not an issue about it's adoption of "Web 2.0" tools, but how well it can integrate the "Web 2.0 Culture" into its business model.


  1. Hi Ivan,

    I agree with you on EB's new model would still be business driven.

    Their new move however contradicts what Robert McHenry (VP & Editor-in-Chief) had challenged earlier in his 2004 article title "The Faith-based Encyclopedia".
    see link -

    McHenry made several criticisms of the structure of Wikipedia. The core of his argument can be summarised as follows: Anybody can edit Wikipedia,
    no matter how ill-qualified. As a result, even a somewhat well-written article will tend to degrade over time as ignorant or incompetent people make
    subsequent alterations. As a result, he argued that Wikipedia could never become a reliable source of information.

    McHenry used the Wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton to illustrate his point.

    McHenry on Wikipedia:

    The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom.
    It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

    Times have changed for good and EB is no exception to welcome Web2.0 in its own way.

    Ganesh Yanamandra

  2. Hi Ganesh, actually EB's new site doesn't contradict their earlier position about wikipedia. As I explained in the post, EB is not adopting a wikipedia approach (of allowing merely anyone to edit). Their editors will still vet and choose the articles to be published under the EB name.


Join the conversation. Leave a comment :)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.