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Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

By Andreas Kolbe



A factoid regularly cited in the press to this day is that a 2005 study by Nature found Wikipedia to be almost as reliable as Britannica. While the study’s (if that is the right word – it wasn’t a peer-reviewed study, but a news story) methodology and conclusions were disputed by Britannica, the result of the Nature comparison has become part of received knowledge for much of the media. As the saying goes, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.

A meme is born

The problems really began as soon as the Nature piece was published. Many news outlets failed to mention that in its survey, Nature looked at hard science topics only – subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and paleontology – despite the fact that Nature clearly said so, in the very first line of its piece. The following headline and lead from c|net will serve as an example:

Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica.

Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, the venerable standard-bearer of facts about the world around us, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature.

Few observers were astute enough to note, as The Register’s Andrew Orlowski did, that restricting the comparison to hard science articles was what “gave the free-for-all web site a fighting chance – as it excluded the rambling garbage and self-indulgence that constitute much of the wannabe encyclopedia’s social science and culture entries”. Another notable exception was Bill Thompson, writing for the BBC, who noted Wikipedia’s problems in “contentious areas such as politics, religion or biography”, and how easily Wikipedia can “be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture”.

Nicholas Carr put it this way: in limiting itself to topics like the “kinetic isotope effect” or “Meliaceae”, which no one without some specialized understanding of the subject matter would even be aware of, the Nature survey played to Wikipedia’s strengths. Carr also established that the Nature “study” was not actually an expert-written research article of the type that built the reputation of Nature, but a non-peer-reviewed piece of news journalism (a fact he confirmed with the piece’s author, Jim Giles).

Another fact that is largely forgotten today: the Nature survey found that many Wikipedia entries were “poorly structured and confusing” and gave undue prominence to controversial theories. Both of these failings are a result of Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing method – one editor adding a sentence here, another adding a sentence there. The study’s highly publicised count of “inaccuracies”, which led to the “Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica” meme, did not reflect that. While the count penalised Britannica for alleged omissions – which Britannica contested – it imposed no penalty on Wikipedia for meandering off topic.

In effect, it considered a sprawling, badly organised jumble of facts to be as valuable as a masterfully written and easy-to-understand introduction to a topic by a world-renowned scholar. The results are not the same. Even so, Nature found that Wikipedia contained about a third more inaccuracies than Britannica. (This doesn’t stop some writers going the whole hog and claiming that Nature found Wikipedia to be more reliable than Britannica. It’s stunning, really, how memes morph on the internet.)

The reality: a site riddled with hoaxes, vandalism, PR manipulation and anonymous defamation

Another point that was lost is that Wikipedia’s quality is very uneven. Wikipedia articles on more obscure topics are often lacking in basic literacy. In the worst case, the information they contain may be entirely made up, or so self-serving to the interests of some anonymous Wikipedia author as to make a mockery of Wikipedia’s vaunted concept of a “neutral point of view”.

Saying that Wikipedia is “as reliable as Britannica” implies that this is so for any article in Wikipedia. And that just ain’t so. Some of Wikipedia’s articles are indeed reliable. The problem is that you never know whether the article you are looking at is one of them.

Wikipedia contains hoaxes and vandalism. It contains malicious defamation and anonymous hatchet jobs authored by people who are in conflict with the person they are writing about, or simply jealous of their success. It contains barely disguised advertising – entries on people and companies written by their subjects, or their PR agents. It contains articles on politics and history that have been meddled with by political extremists. Wikipedia entries are protean edifices: they may say one thing today and a completely different thing tomorrow. Those are all problems conventional reference works like Britannica never had. Is this progress?



Double-take: from hatchet job to puff-piece. Wikipedia articles may say one thing today and a completely different thing tomorrow.


What reference works like Britannica do have are editors in the traditional sense of the word – experts in their fields, who ensure that what is published meets academic standards. Wikipedia has editors, too, but in Jimmy Wales’ online encyclopedia the word means something entirely different: it is applied to any anonymous person with an internet connection who clicks “Edit” on a Wikipedia page – whether it’s a schoolchild, a mentally disturbed person, a political activist, a knowledgeable amateur or an actual scholar. Wikipedia has all of them. But academics venturing into the “encyclopedia anyone can edit” (allegedly) often find it a very time-consuming and frustrating experience, punctuated by interminable arguments with young men who may only have a very superficial understanding of the academic’s area of expertise, but unlimited time to spend on Wikipedia, familiarity with the site’s arcane and self-contradictory policies and guidelines, and wiki-friends to back them up. Many a distinguished academic lacks the time and patience to engage with them, and has been blocked from further participation for “incivility”. It’s not the same as talking to your editor at a university press!

Horses for courses

Wikipedia is free. It’s understandable that people don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth. But no one should fool themselves into thinking that the nag they got for free is an Arabian racehorse.




Further reading

Here is a non-exhaustive list of links that illustrate some of Wikipedia’s shortcomings. Note the number of times Wikipedia made fools of journalists, even a judge. Are there stories like this about Britannica, or any other properly edited reference work? Peruse these links at your leisure, and decide for yourself whether Wikipedia is as accurate as Britannica.

Student hoaxes world’s media on Wikipedia (NBC News)
After a half-decade, massive Wikipedia hoax finally exposed (The Daily Dot)
The greatest movie that never was (The Daily Dot)
Despite what Wikipedia told you, there’s no ‘Breast Touching Festival’ in China (The Daily Dot)

What you never knew about Robert Klotz, but Wikipedia told you for half a year (Wikipedia)
Shocker: Wikipedia Refers Congress MP L Rajagopal as ‘PepperSpray Rajagopal’ (International Business Times India)
Leveson’s Wikipedia moment: how internet ‘research’ on The Independent’s history left him red-faced (The Independent)
Wikipedia, the 25–year–old student and the prank that fooled Leveson (The Telegraph)
AFC apologizes to the UAE over ‘Sand Monkeys’ remark on its website [AFC copied racist slur from Wikipedia] (Al Arabiya)
Independent bigs up the ‘Wanky Balls festival’ (The Register)
Sepp Blatter given embarrassing nickname on World Cup award (The Telegraph)

Malicious editing and defamation:
Detractors are trying to distort my Wikipedia profile: Payal Rohatgi (The Times of India)
Revenge, ego and the corruption of Wikipedia (Salon)
Wikipedia’s shame (Salon)
Anonymous revenge editing on Wikipedia – the case of Robert Clark Young aka Qworty (Wikipediocracy)
The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose – A false and malicious identity is admitted. (The New Statesman)
Any political filth or personal libel can be hurled at the innocent (The Independent)
What is it with Wikipedia? (BBC)
Mayfair art dealer Mark Weiss in disgrace after admitting poison pen campaign against rival Philip Mould (The Telegraph)

Article quality:
Don’t trust anything on Wikipedia (New York Post)
Dear Julian Koenig, I’m glad you’re not dead (The Drum)
Elementary mathematics on Wikipedia (Wikipediocracy)
Duns Scotus and Jennifer Lopez: Why can’t Wikipedia make better sausages? (Wikipediocracy)
Bats (Wikipediocracy)
The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Don’t trust Wikipedia on Anselm (The Baltimore Sun)
How vandals are destroying Wikipedia from the inside (The Daily Dot)
The medical condition known as glucojasinogen (Beyond Necessity)

PR infiltration and manipulation of Wikipedia content:
The battle to destroy Wikipedia’s biggest sockpuppet army (The Daily Dot)
The not-so-free encyclopedia: Is Wikipedia for Sale? (Motherboard)
Are plastic surgeons nip/tucking ads into high-profile Wikipedia articles? (The Daily Dot)
Is Wikipedia’s front page for sale? (The Daily Dot)
Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia (c|net)
Wales: Let’s ban Gibraltar-crazy Wikipedians for 5 years. Too bad you’re not the boss, Jimbo (The Register)

Political manipulation:
Wikipedia – the new ministry of truth (Wikipediocracy)
How pro-fascist ideologues are rewriting Croatia’s history [on Wikipedia] (The Daily Dot)
Wikipedia’s balkanisation (Wikipediocracy)
Wikipedia’s odd relationship with the Kazakh dictatorship (The Daily Dot)
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales restricts discussion of Tony Blair friendship (The Telegraph)
Jimmy Wales in: The Dictator and I (Wikipediocracy)

(This blog post was originally published February 16, 2014)

Image credits: Flickr/hang_in_there, Wikipeda. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic


29 comments to Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

  • lilburne

    It is astounding that professionals look to wikipedia for anything. After all it is just MySpace with a bunch of dead links at the bottom of the page.

    • simsa0

      The reason for that may simply be that most specialized, topical dictionaries are not available without charge on the web.

      (The main advantage of Wikipedia is not the quality of its articles, but that with two or three clicks in your browser you get enough information to satify a rough ‘n’ dirty query over breakfast.)

      There are only a very few freely accessible dictionaries / encyclopaedias. Usually the publisher’s copyright is used to monetize the access. In order to provide publishers with an incentive to make their dictionaries freely accessible, they would need to be allowed to keep their copyright and would need a busniss-model to regain costs (and make profits).

      A simple way to achieve that would be to let them keep the copyright and find a means to refund them. This could be done e.g. via tax-funded federal endowments that would pay the publishers a fee. They could keep the copyright, would keep the obligation to curate the content (that comes with the copyright), would be paid for longterm curation and, in exchange, would make the encyclopaedia accessible without charge. (The Standford Encyclopeda of Phiolosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/ is one such rare example where the publisher keeps his copyright, with that the obligation for and control over curation, and still makes it accessible without any charge via the web.)

      Until then, you have to be luck to live in the vicinity of a university library. And that’s still a luxury most people don’t have.

      • lilburne

        The more you know about a subject the more you realize just how unreliable wikipedia is. There is no quality control over the thing at all. A blog posting there made it to ‘Feature Article’ status with the claim that Richard II was king of England in 1345, it remained as such for 3 years. Links to the parents of a historical figure link to people whose parent is the first person you started with. IOW the father’s father, is the child. People in a blog post dealing with the 14th century are link to people in the 16th century. Other links go to totally unrelated things, or concepts. Most often any links to external references are dead, or do not support the WP assertion. Internally linked post contradicts other wikipedia blog post. All of it is a swirling mess of confusion: the babble of a multitude of numbskulls.

    • Sahelanthropus sapeins

      It’s not astounding at all, it’s quite a handy way to possibly find good summaries and some discussion and links to primary sources. What’s astounding is that people would just read about a topic they’re not particularly knowledgeable and never check the sources, but that isn’t something new with wikipedia, and the odds are that having wikipedia as an starting point rather than from some “random” source the person will end up having a less biased perspective than one would find in an individually authored text. “X is the only theory that really stood the test, unlike the others, to which support is virtually nonexistent, under a critical analysis”, vs “most scientists support the other theories, particularly theory Y. Proponents of theory X, however…”

  • simsa0

    The comparisons of Wikipedia with other encyclopaedias is shaky on several accounts.

    First, what is meant with “Britannica”? Do we speak about lemmata / articles from the Micropedia (a short-version, first glance abbreviated coverage of a topic), the Macropedia (in depth long-form articles), the children- and students editon, the digital or the printed version, etc.? Even if you accept the 15th printed edition (lower in quality than, say, the 12th), its Macropedia articles on history, humanities, religion etc. often beat Wikipedia in clarity and balance.

    Second, it’s always misleading to compare an article entry in a _printed_ dictionary (with its limitations in space available) with one in a _digital_ dictionary (with its abundance of space). If you have unlimited space, of course you can produce articles that somehow cover the amount of information skillfully condensated in articles of a printed dictionary. So in order to level the field, Wikipedia’s online articles shouldn’t be compared with small printed articles from the Briatannica’s Micropedia, but with the long articles of printed _specialized_, _topical_ dictionaries which allocate more space to a lemma. Not only will then the word number in both be roughly the same. More important, if one compares the quality of such digital Wikipedia-articles with longform articles of such printed specialized dictionaries, the discrepancies in quality will become obvious. (Just see, e.g., http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore/ with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._E._Moore for an illustration.)

    Third, instead of asking whether Wikipedia is as good or worse or better than Britannica — i.e., which dictionary provides more accurate information — it may be more useful and informative to ask whether, given a lemma / article, both compared dictionaries show the same amount of errors and mistakes, or if one shows more than the other. I don’t have the exact source but I remember someone saying that in a comparison between the German Wikipedia an the German Brockhaus encyclopaedia several years ago, the latter showed more mistakes and errors per leamma / article than Wikipedia. If that were so, it would in my opinion provide an argument in favour of Wikipedia.

    This as just a few hints why in my opinion the usual comparison between Wikipedia and other dictionaries is one of apples with carrots. Not much truthful, but effective to rally the troops.

    • Ed

      “Just see, e.g., http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moore/ with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._E._Moore for an illustration.)”

      On pretty much any philosophy article, SEP will beat Wikipedia. Was that your point? (I noticed that even on the non-philosophical bits, SEP corrctly says that Moore went to Trinity in 1892, whereas Wikipedia says “in 1892, he was educated at Dulwich College”.

      SEP is generally too difficult for a middlebrow audience, which is all the more shame on Wikipedia for not providing a decent set of articles on my subject.

      • simsa0

        I’d say that SEP is throughout far better than most you may find on Wikipedia, be it its English, German or Spanish version. That’s a reason why I won’t use Wikipedia when it comes to matters philosophical (except perhaps questions of formal logic etc.) (And that’s perhaps a reason why Wikipedia-articles in this field don’t get better — there already is a better article elsewhere.)

        But this was mainly an illustration for the point I was trying to make that often the comparisons in quality between Wikipedia articles and articles from other encyclopaedias and dictionaries rest on the faulty assumption that you can compare at all articles that have limitless space (digital, Wikipedia) and those that have been written with limitations in space (print, general encyclopaedias). In order to level the field, then, one should rather compare Wikipedia-articles with articles from specialized print encyclopaedias that devote far more space to a lemma than a general print encyclopaedia with its short entries. Compared that way, Wikipedia will lose out in most cases, I presume.

        So what I had in mind was to question the methodology of the comparison that was done of Wikipedia and Britannica in 2005.

  • HRIP7

    Speaking of paleontology, a correspondent has pointed out to me that at the time of writing, Wikipedia contains a “Brain tree” chart (“Evolution of brain size in Homininae”, by “P’tit Pierre”) presenting the Australopithecine A. afarensis as an ancestor of the chimpanzee and bonobo:




    Paranthropus robustus, meanwhile, is presented as an ancestor of the gorilla in the same chart.

    It seems that in some parts of Wikipedia, apes are descended from man.

    It’s a real howler, of the sort you wouldn’t find in Britannica.

    For reference, here are the Britannica entries on these two species:



    And here is the Britannica article on human evolution:


    Of course, when you Google human evolution, Wikipedia comes first. Britannica is a lot further down. It barely makes the first page.

  • […] Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica? wikipediocracy.com/2014/02/16… […]

  • Arild Nordby

    Wikipedia is, and will forever remain, an interactive blog site, rather than anything else. That doesn’t dampen my own interest of adding material there, nor to avoid doing my best that MY material is as well sourced I want it to be.

  • lf

    The eleventh edition characterises the Ku Klux Klan as protecting the white race and restoring order to the American South after the American Civil War, citing the need to “control the negro”, and “the frequent occurrence of the crime of rape by negro men upon white women”.[10][11]

    Similarly, the “Civilization” article argues for eugenics, stating that it is irrational to “propagate low orders of intelligence, to feed the ranks of paupers, defectives and criminals … which to-day constitute so threatening an obstacle to racial progress.”[12]


  • lf

    The magic of Encyclopedia Britannica’s 11th edition

    The entry on antisemitism states that it is “a passing phase in the history of culture”. This was written 30 years before the horrors of Nazi Germany.

    (forget about the previous 5000 years of persecution)

    The Vietnamese are the “worst-built and ugliest of all the Indo-Chinese,” while the Chinese are “inferior in character” to Europeans. Arabs are noted for a propensity to be “cruel” and “crafty,” and Africans “appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man”.

    The magic of Encyclopedia Britannica’s 11th edition


  • “Российское могущество прирастать будет Сибирью”

  • […] evidence to the contrary, there is still no shortage of tech writers repeating the old adage that a 2005 Nature study proved that Wikipedia is as reliable as Britannica. The Nature piece in question was no rigorous scientific study, but a piece of journalism, and it […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] and political manipulation, not to mention mistakes and out-of-date information, are among the risks you run when you use it. Harvard officially tells its freshmen that “some information in […]

  • […] as accurate as Britannica”. No one seems to remember these days that the Nature piece was not a rigorous peer-reviewed study, but a journalistic piece that only looked at a small sample of a… – including some fairly obscure ones like the “kinetic isotope effect” or “Meliaceae” […]

  • While I agree with this article, I must point out that not all Britannica articles are as good as the author claims. Some are poorly written. Some are extremely biased, in my opinion. Yes, there is more “quality control” than Wikipedia, but sometimes it is used to advocate a mainstream point of view that turns out to be wrong.

    No institution is perfect.

    It is better to have many different reference books reflecting different points of view, written by different experts and some by non-experts. The reader can sort them out. I think one of the pernicious effects of Wikipedia is that it is so popular and Google searches find it so often that it drowns out other sources and other points of view.

  • I will give you the same respond I gave to my History teacher for scrutinizing us for using Wickipedia to check historic dates:
    Instead of muttering about it DO contribute yourself !!!
    It is by far one of the hallmarks of modern society: FREE KNOWLEDGE!
    more than any closed and authoritative model had achieved !!!

    Also anything that is not hard science is ultimately : SUBJECTIVE

    • John Lilburne

      Someone on wikipedia added the nonsense dates, someone who believes in wikipedia can go fix it. Don’t put the cost of your rubbish onto other people. We didn’t cause the crap to be there in the first place. If Jimmy Wales’ dog shits on the sidewalk then its Jimmy Wales’ responsibility to clean it up. Not the general community who may accidentally step in it,

    • Luchog

      Nonsense. I’ve tried to fix errors; and got them quickly reverted for my troubles. I signed up as a Wikipedia editor way during its first or second year on the Web, a drooling fanboy who believed in Wales “wisdom of crowds” nonsense. The various edit wars, blatant partisanship, and in-group politics quickly disabused me of that belief.

      I can point to a half-dozen articles on “alternative” medicine that read like advertisements. Attempting to post actual scientific criticism with links to sources has proven futile, with edits reverted within weeks, or even days, and no explanation. Found out from a rather blatant edit-war scandal that one of them was actually created and maintained by the originator of the practice advertised in the article. I never found out the result of that particular scandal on the editor/promoter in question; but the article is still there in its original form, still advertising the practice without a shred of actual science allowed on the page.

      Same with articles on history. There’s one particular article on a part of Japanese history which is popularly misunderstood, and which is rife with errors. A number of years ago, I introduced a particularly egregious error in the form of a small unattributed paragraph, which was something popularly believed but easily proven untrue with primary sources, as part of a bet with a Wikipedia fanboy. The error stood for 5 years before it was changed. Note I said “changed” and not “corrected”. The error I made was removed, and an even more inaccurate comment replaced it. I attempted to correct that to be more accurate with attributions to scholarly sources, but that correction was quickly reverted.

      Its ridiculously easy to find many other examples of these problems on the site; and even-more-ridiculously difficult to actually get them corrected. Wikipedia is not driven by scientific and scholarly search for truth; but rather by blatant prejudices, self-serving agendas, promotion and advertising, and egotistical power trips.

      Without an overseeing committed of expert scholars and researchers who have the final say on any published material, Wikipedia will never even remotely approach the accuracy and usefulness of even a second-rate print encyclopedia.

      • Luchog

        Gah, annoying typo there.

        “The error stood for 5 years before it was changed.”

        That should be “The error stood for 2 years before it was changed.”

  • Yogesh Khandke

    See Mahabaleshwar – the bureaucracy at Britannica can’t correct its flawed location, despite it being pointed out five years ago.