January 25, 2009

In the Battle for Number One, Wikipedia and Britannica Look A Little More Alike

In a move suggestive of its main online competitor Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica is inviting the public to edit, enhance and contribute to its online version, according to The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald [via slashdot.org].

Any changes made to the online content would be passed by the EB’s editors. The company has promised a 20-minute turnaround time on any changes. Many of the changes will eventually appear in the printed version of the encyclopedia, which is published every two years.

Britannica's president, Jorge Cauz, said the changes were the first in a series of enhancements to the britannica.com website designed to encourage more community input to the 241-year-old institution and, in doing so, to take on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Wikipedia may restrict the public’s ability to change entries.

Noam Cohen writes that the site has come under fire recently after vandals changed Wikipedia entries to erroneously report that Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd had died. This information appeared for five minutes before it was taken down.

In response, the site appears ready to introduce a system that prevents new and anonymous users from instantly publishing changes to the online encyclopedia.

Only registered, reliable users would have the right to have their material immediately appear to the general public visiting the site. Other contributors would be able to edit articles, but their changes will be held back until one of these reliable users has signed off of the revisions.

The system, used by German Wikipedia since May 2008, is slow. Although more than 95% of the article changes have been dealt with, it has sometimes taken as long as three weeks before revisions appear to all visitors.

According to Cohen: “The new system, would mark a significant change in the anything-goes, anyone-can-edit-at-any-time ethos of Wikipedia, which in eight years of existence has become one of the top 10 sites on the Web and the de facto information source for the Internet-using public.”

Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the Wikimedia Foundation, said the organization did not yet have a fixed timeline on when the new approval system would be adopted, as “implementing this functionality is really a volunteer community decision.”

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