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Saturday, January 24, 2009

More on Britannica's wiki-like features

Stephen Hutcheon, Watch out Wikipedia, here comes Britannica 2.0, Sydney Morning Herald, January 22, 2009.  (Thanks to Resource Shelf.)  Excerpt:

In a move to take on Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica is inviting the hoi polloi to edit, enhance and contribute to its online version.

New features enabling the inclusion of this user-generated content will be rolled out on the encyclopedia's website over the next 24 hours, Britannica's president, Jorge Cauz, said in an interview today....

Mr Cauz, who is visiting Australia, said the changes were the first in a series of enhancements to the website designed to encourage more community input to the 241-year-old institution and, in doing so, to take on Wikipedia in the all important search engine rankings....

Mr Cauz said that any changes or additions made to Britannica entries online would have to be vetted by one of the company's staff or freelance editors before the changes were reflected on the live site.

He said the encyclopedia had set a benchmark of a 20-minute turnaround to update the site with user-submitted edits to existing articles, which are written by the encyclopedia's paid expert contributors.

Many of those changes will eventually appear in the printed version of the encyclopedia, which is published every two years.

In addition to the community editing features, will enable approved users to add their own creative input which will sit beside the authorised articles....

Would-be editors on the Britannica site will have to register using their real names and addresses before they are allowed to modify or write their own articles....


  • Also see Britannica's announcement from June 2008, previewing these features. 
  • While the Britannica has been gratis OA for registered bloggers and other web-based writers since April 2008, it still charges the general public for access to what it calls "premium topics".  What's a premium topic?  You won't learn the answer by putting the term in the site's search box.  A little browsing suggests that Britannica has not made some articles free and some priced.  Instead, it shows you the first screenful of the one and only article on a topic, for free, and then pops up a pay-per-view screen when you try to scroll.  This may be an innovation for Britannica, but it's not the way to compete with Wikipedia.  Nor is it the way to compete with other major print-era encyclopedias.  France's Larousse not only allows wiki-like user contributions, but also plans an entire OA edition.  Germany's 30-volume Brockhaus Encyclopedia has already converted to OA.

Update (1/25/09).  A sentence in my comment yesterday was imprecise:  "This may be an innovation for Britannica, but it's not the way to compete with Wikipedia."  Let me distinguish competing with Wikipedia (1) for quality, (2) for scope, and (3) for eyeballs and links.  Britannica is already competitive with Wikipedia for quality, and the limited nature of its new wiki-like features is designed to preserve its quality.  (Conversely, Wikipedia is competitive with Britannica for quality.)  Britannica will never be competitive with Wikipedia in scope and isn't apparently trying, which is wise.  Hutcheon's article suggested, however, that Britannica is trying to compete with Wikipedia for eyeballs and links.  In passages I didn't include in my excerpt, Cauz criticized Google for ranking Wikipedia articles above Britannica articles, as if Google rank were about quality, or as if the quantity of links to TA articles would ever rival the quantity of links to OA articles.  When I said that Britannica hadn't found a way to compete with Wikipedia, I was referring to eyeballs and links.  Entirely apart from Britannica's quality, and its partial openness to user contributions, it will never compete for eyeballs and links as long as the bulk of its content is TA. (Disclosure: I'm on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation.)

Correction (1/25/09).  My information on Brockhaus is outdated.  Here's better information from Mathias Schindler, posted with permission (thanks Mathias):

Last year, Brockhaus announced to change their business model for the 30 volume encyclopedia with free (as in beer) access at or some other online page. The project was scheduled to start in late spring 2008, it was postponed several times and finally indefinitely. In December 2008, the company which owns the Brockhaus trademark ("Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus, BIFAB) announced that they intend to sell the Brockhaus brand, the trademark, the rights of usage to Bertelsmann. The sell is scheduled for 31 Jan, 2009 pending permission from the monopoly commission. There will be no free (as in beer) online Brockhaus.  For a while, Brockhaus had a substitute page online, the "" that mostly contains content from the 30 volume encyclopedia or specifically created for the upcoming Brockhaus online portal.