Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, with Britannica book of the year 2002, with white library labels.

Image via Wikipedia

Forgive me, but I think the recent news that the Encyclopedia Britannica is adopting a modified Wiki approach reveals not a brave embrace of new online realities, but rather a tepid response to the threat they are under. It’s the second example this week of organizations that apparently have lost their bearings with the changes online is foisting upon them.

Now, the proposed solution is quite elegant. In fact, it’s probably too elegant:

  1. Experts can create profiles on Britannica ala LinkedIn, and these personas will gather together their contributions. So far, so good.
  2. There will be three tiers to information — contributions from users, contributions from experts, and the final Britannica as approved and vetted by editors. Now we’re seeing the Achilles’ heel.
  3. Experts will received unnamed “incentives” to contribute. It’s hard to call something an incentive when it cannot be named.

My doubts about this are multiple.

First, Wikipedia is well ahead, and moving along nicely. It’s baked into the Web in ways that Britannica is not at all. It has a responsive, responsible user group. Is this just too little, too late?

Second, tiering information implies latency. This is the major weakness of old media, and a major advantage of Wikipedia, blogs, and podcasts. If responsiveness is compromised, there’s a long-term competitive disadvantage. Wikipedia’s entries will be absorbed by search engines, vetted by a knowledgeable audience, and quite correct by the time Britannica’s latency has pushed an entry through.

Third, unless experts are paid in cash or academic barter, what kind of incentive will work that Wikipedia can’t provide as well? Free copies of the 1980’s edition in print?

Finally, this whole “expert” thing makes me tired. Experts in military planning, economics, diplomacy, energy, health care, and law have a lot of explaining to do for the past decade we’ve lived through. I’m not buying the notion that we need more authority-driven thinking these days.

We’ll see if Encyclopedia Britannica can make this work. It seems complicated, doctrinaire, condescending, and slow — four things that the majority of online users are unlikely to tolerate.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Britannica’s Tepid Move"

You know, I had almost the opposite reaction when I heard about the wikification of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I thought, “Oh no, the great unwashed come to the reference world!” I was relieved to hear that the editors plan to vet the content submitted by users.

I agree that the issue of compensation for community-generated content is unresolved.

It may very well be too little, too late for Brittanica. And I use wikipedia for casual questions (think bar bets). But I still cringe that it is the first line of research for countless students. Call me a Luddite.

The thing that Brittanica still has is “trust” which caries value even in the world of instantaneous wiki updates.

Remember that scholarly publishing has also been accused of being (in your words) “complicated, doctrinaire, condescending, and slow” and yet academics and the general public are still willing to tolerate the system because of the trust that is created in the process.

Some good things are worth waiting for.

These comments instigated two thoughts. First, in classic disruption, “good enough” takes the audience from the bottom up and soon has dominance. Wikipedia is doing that. It is already settling bar bets for the well-educated. Soon, it will be for more. Second, while STM publishing has been accused of the sins Phil reflects back, the Web has forced a lot of change already. I think this will only continue. It will be harder in the realm of pure research because the work is different. For dictionaries and encyclopedias, the disruption ledge is narrower, I think.

I have written and edited a number of Wikipedia entries in the areas of protozoan parasitology and mycology. These areas are outside of my current work industry but well within my areas of expertise, at least at the level of detail appropriate for Wikipedia and the EB.

On the one hand I’d really like the opportunity to contribute to the EB, I think there’s a level of prestige and authority that Wikipedia doesn’t have, at least with old folks like myself. On the other hand, though, I have a very hard time picturing a scenario where I noticed a shortcoming or error in an EB entry and I would be willing to make my edits after which I would provide my CV and credentials in order to discourse with the EB editors such that those changes would appear as part of the entry. When contrasted with the ease with which I can quickly correct and expand the Wikipedia entry on the same subject, you can see where I would be most likely to invest my time.

In the end, though, the continued viability of the EB as an online resource requires that they fight for attention, not editing. Folks like me like to link to the site that lets us edit entries but the folks who link to Wikipedia vastly outnumber those who edit entries (or care how they’re edited). An open attitude to linking and mashing the EB entries and engagement of the traffic drivers would seem to be of equal or greater importance to opening up the editing and I’ve seen no evidence that they’re making headway there.

I have to say, the image conveyed by the ‘disruption ledge is narrower’, is a pretty powerful one. And gives a whole new meaning to “trying to talk someone away from the ledge”!

This concept that Kent introduces in the third comment, “Good enough”, is one of the things I’ve been thinking about this last year as I’ve gotten used to listening to music on an iPod. The first time I listened to music on it, I thought, “it sounds like AM Car Radio from the 70’s!”. I was used to listening to CDs on ‘way better than good enough’ audio equipment at home and the iPod *at first* seemed like a step backwards in fidelity. Just a few months ago though, I read an article in the NYTimes that said musicians (and this quoted major classical musicians) had switched to the “good enough” iPod fidelity because the convenience (anywhere, anytime, anything) was most important to them in their on-the-go life. I suspect those who enjoy the Kindle — I’m waiting for version 2 — would say the same thing about its “fidelity” (to the printed book) being ‘good enough’ especially when the convenience is factored in of ordering a book online and not having to wait even a day or two. Judging from all the Zappos shoe boxes that show up at the HighWire office, people would say the same about Zappos.

I think that we’re going to see ‘soon enough’ how much “good enough” is applicable to scholarly publishing. We can certainly ask if the “lower fidelity” of an author manuscript appearing in institutional or funder repositories or journal websites — compared to the “high fi” of the final published version — will eventually be “good enough” if it is more convenient (more available, and/or sooner).

The data we have at HighWire suggests that the final published version is preferred, even when it is subscription based and the author manuscript is free. But of course we don’t have data to compare with on use outside of a journal site.

There was a related article in BMJ:

Open access and openly accessible: a study of scientific publications shared via the internet
Jonathan D Wren
BMJ, doi:10.1136/bmj.38422.611736.E0 (published 12 April 2005)

which concluded that, “On average, for the high impact journal articles published in 2003, over a third could be located at non-journal websites. Similar trends were observed for the delayed or full open access publications.”

Given that 2003 was before Google Scholar, I’m sure the possibility of locating non-journal-site versions is considerably higher now.

But I’ve take this comment far afield of Britannica!

(Since Joe Esposito was CEO of Britannica when it went online a decade ago, maybe he’d comment?)

John Sack,
Stanford HighWire

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