Monday, 13 October 2008

Reflection on Encyclopedia vs Wikipedia

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
- encyclopedia, encyclopaedia
- noun - a book or set of books containing many articles arranged in alphabetical order which deal either with the whole of human
- knowledge or with a particular part of it:

In the past encyclopaedias were bought almost as a status symbol to fill up bookshelves in homes and libraries and were at the time awesome repositories of knowledge produced by well known publishers such as Encyclopaedia Britainnica or Peers. In our household, and all libraries of the day, they were treated with reverance stemming from the fact that the knowledge within had painstakingly been collected, reviewed, checked, edited and then printed – a process which before computers and desktop publishing software took years. They were trusted, quoted and referred to mainly because they had supposedly been compiled by well qualified experts.Then in 2004 the apperace of the “wiki” became the“next big thing on the Internet” (Cummings2007).

(n.) A collaborative
Web site comprises the perpetual collective work of many authors
Similar to a
blog in structure and logic, a wiki allows anyone to edit, delete or modify content that has been placed on the Web site using a browser interface

It is therefore not surprising that when first referred to Wikipedia ( I was “blown away” as it felt both incredulous and strange. Why? Firstly, it was amazing to see this vast repository of knowledge (multilingual, Web-based, free content encyclopedia project) that had grown organically in just a few years with millions of articles, thousands of contributors and hundreds of languages available all free and easily accessible in electronic format with no registering or payment needed. Secondly, the strange part was that this repository was built up not by well qualified subject experts but by volunteer contributors. As someone who grew up in the age of “books come from experts” this was a “walk on the wild side”. My students use Wikipedia to get some scope on topics we are learning (albeit with a warning that this is a collection of common knowledge) mainly because it is quick and easy knowledge at your fingertips. Why not – we now live in a world of “instant cash, instant food, instant finance” so why not “instant knowledge?” Perhaps what still bothers me on the moral/ethical side is not so much the “instant” part but the credibility part. The issue is of course is whether or not the wiki knowledge can be trusted or not in the same way we used to inherently trust the old encyclopaedias of the past as a recognised source of knowledge? In this vein it is interesting to read in the Robert Cummings article about the Nature 2005 study which showed that after a detailed analysis there was supposedly a negligble difference between the accuracy of articles given in Encyclopedia Britannica and those given in Wikipedia. Something of a comforting thought for the old school amongst us!

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