Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?

WSJ publishes an interesting and surprisingly catty debate between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Britannica editor in chief Dale Hoiberg on the topic “Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?

A couple of interesting/amusing exchanges:

Mr. Wales: Artificially excluding good people from the process is not the best way to gather accurate knowledge. Britannica has acknowledged the value of having multiple contributors, although of course because they are proprietary rather than freely licensed they would have a very hard time attracting the kind of talent that we have.


Mr. Hoiberg: I can only assume Mr. Wales is being ironic when he says Britannica would have a hard time attracting the kind of talent that Wikipedia has. Britannica has published more than a hundred Nobel Prize winners and thousands of other well-known experts and scholars. Contrary to Wikipedia, Britannica’s contributor base is transparent and not anonymous.


Mr. Wales: […] Britannica doesn’t display its rough drafts, or the articles before being checked by a copy editor; Wikipedia does. We think this sort of open transparency is healthy and results in greater quality than doing everything behind closed doors.

Mr. Hoiberg: No, we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published. We stand behind our process, based on trained editors and fact-checkers, more than 4,000 experts, and sound writing. Our model works well. Wikipedia is very different, but nothing in their model suggests we should change what we do.

Mr. Wales: Fitting words for an epitaph…

I find Hoiberg’s argument more persuasive. That’s not surprising, given that I am, by training at least, a scholar with a PhD (albeit no Nobel Prize). As a blogger, of course, I’m also a fan of the free marketplace of ideas, which allows expert and non-expert alike to weigh in and build an audience on the strength of their persuasive ability. Still, I think a Nobel Prize winning PhD writing in his area of specialization is more likely worth reading on that topic than some schmoe who has read a couple articles about it on the Internet.

In reality, though, I stopped buying updates to my Encyclopaedia Britannica a decade ago and only keep it on my shelves because it was so damned expensive that I can’t bear simply getting rid of it. (I’m donating my print dictionaries, thesauruses, and similar books rather than moving them yet again.) Wikipedia is usually my resource-of-first-resort when looking up quick background information.

That’s not, however, because the quality of its information is superior to Britannica–in most cases, it isn’t–but because it’s available free online whereas the other is subscription based and/or in print. Even if Britannica were available for a nominal subscription fee, the mere inconvenience of having to login would put it at a disadvantage.

We’ve come to the point where, for an increasing number of us, information has to be available quickly, easily, and for free online. It almost doesn’t matter if the competition is “better” in terms of quality if it’s hiding behind a subscription firewall or otherwise not easily searchable and obtainable.

Therefore, the answer to the titular question is Yes–unless the “traditional” encyclopedias follow the key part of Wikipedia’s model which, contra Mr. Wales, is open availability rather than open editing. Were Britannica results available free (presumably with advertising in the sidebar) and indexed in the major search engines, I would prefer it readily over Wikipedia for things other than pop culture and quickly changing topics. Since it isn’t, I prefer Wikipedia for all topics.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Even if Britannica were available for a nominal subscription fee, the mere inconvenience of having to login would put it at a disadvantage.

    You have something against cookies?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, they often don’t work. And you have to reenter the login for every different computer and operating system. It’s a pain.

    Plus, being behind a login screen would mean it wouldn’t be optimized in the search engines, so you’d have to go directly to their site to acccess the info, vice Wikipedia where it comes up along with other search results.

  3. Kent G. Budge says:

    James, I think your analysis is spot-on. I go to Wikipedia first because it’s there — and also, quite frankly, because I find the biases, edit wars, inconsistency, and outright errors highly entertaining. Kind of like blogs.

    If an encyclopedia using the Britannica production model was freely available online, with or without advertisements, I’d doubtless go there first for serious information.

    I will grant Wiki this much: In topical areas that are noncontroversial and have a dedicated academic cult following — such as certain branches of mathematics and physics — I’ve found some really excellent articles. I’ve also found some awful ones, but I am educated enough in these fields to know which is which right away.

    I don’t think the Wiki production model is completely broken, and I see signs that they are being compelled to adopt some of the changes to their production model that I think are inevitable if they are to survive — but it’s done kicking and screaming. Curiously, the changes I’m thinking of tend to take them in the direction of Britannica.

  4. Ray says:

    Mr. Hoiberg: No, we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published.

    LOL Outstanding! I’ll have to remember that quote!

  5. Wickedpinto says:

    Wiki is for the nowist in all of us. I need info NOW!

    Britannica is for the occasional intelectual, or reseach oriented portion of us that really works to understand something.

    They each serve their purpose, and this quote Mr. Wales: Fitting words for an epitaph… is just offensive. I don’t think encyclopedia’s are exactly all about a proffit motive, I think they tend to be the place where serious people go to give or get the information that should be shared.