After years of more or less ignoring its open-source competitor, the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) will soon be taking a page from Wikipedia's playbook and allowing members of the public to contribute to articles and other content at Britannica.com.
That's according to Jorge Cauz, president of the 240-year-old institution, which at one time was synonymous with knowledge in many Western households and schools.
The Britannica head told the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Times in the U.K. that Britannica plans to offer the new features on its Website soon.
Cauz made it clear, however, that anything submitted by users will have to be vetted by one of the encyclopedia's staff of paid researchers before it appears either on the Website or in the actual print version of the EB. "We're not trying to be a wiki -- that's the last thing we want to be," he told The Times. "Britannica doesn't offer that voyeuristic benefit. Users won't be able to write anything they want and have it published."
The changes -- which are just part of the creation of a larger Britannica community portal -- were first described last June, and it was made clear then that Britannica didn't plan on letting the whole "crowd-sourcing" thing get out of hand: "We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable 'wisdom of the crowds,' " a blog post said at the time.
Of course, Encyclopedia Britannica's Cauz probably knows that in many cases, users can't just write anything they want and have it published in Wikipedia, either. There are dozens of moderators and editors working for the open-source encyclopedia (although they are unpaid volunteers), who check page changes for accuracy and to make sure they uphold the Wikipedia principles of fairness and a "neutral point of view."
While there are some pages that can be edited freely, where mistakes might not be noticed quickly, other pages (including the one about President George Bush) are "locked" and cannot be edited by anyone but a Wikipedia-sanctioned moderator.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has also recently proposed changes that would restrict editing even further.
Currently, a well known comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia found that the error rate in each case was roughly equivalent.
It seems pretty obvious from the Britannica president's comments that he is: (a) more than a little envious of Wikipedia's traffic numbers (the open-source encyclopedia gets about 6 million visitors a day, while Britannica gets about 1.5 million a day); and (b) irritated that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) features Wikipedia links so prominently in the search results for many common terms for which people might otherwise go to Britannica.com.
"If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google I would be very [cheesed] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia," Cauz told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Is this the best they can do?" He also made it clear that he sees Wikipedia as the fast-food version of knowledge, saying many people turn to it for answers, but that many people are also "happy to eat McDonald's every day."
Britannica isn't the only one to try and take the Wikipedia model and blend it with the authoritative voice of the expert. A project called Citizendium, which started up a little over a year ago, was created by Larry Sanger -- a former co-founder of Wikipedia -- as an attempt to create a "crowd-sourced" encyclopedia, but with input from subject-matter experts rather than just anyone.
Google has taken some steps in that direction as well, with a service called Knol (derived from "knowledge"), which encourages experts to create Wikipedia-style entries on specific subjects.
But neither Knol nor Citizendium has gotten much traction. They are certainly nowhere near challenging Wikipedia for the title of "the people's encyclopedia." Whether Britannica's changes can make a difference -- and put the company back in the race -- remains to be seen.
— Mathew Ingram, technology writer for The Globe and Mail in Canada