Wednesday, 28 December 2005

My Learning Outcome of the "Britannica Vs Wikipedia Debate"

I have been following the development of "Britannica Vs Wikipedia Debate", see here , here and here without really drawing any conclusion. Smelly Knowledge added yet another point of view, The Emergence of Meaning: Wikipedia As Object-Centered Sociality.

If we can accept that an article is a manifestation (one of many) of the author's knowledge of a subject matter and that the knowledge (or understanding) is in a constant changing stage, I can cope with the debate and may be able to take a side.

Articles in Britannica are the compromised manifestation of a group of people (called writers here after) selected by a group of editors.

Wikipedia is a massively multiparticipant distributed collection of articles which are, again, manifestations of the writers of these articles.

I don't know about the article writing process in Britannica, but I would suppose that there may be disagreements of the manifestation among the writers AND the final version is the result of an EDITORIAL process.

There are disagreement of the manifestation as tracked in the history and compromise process is done via the public discussion which is also publicly available - a different EDITORIAL process.

The editors who selected the writers are not themselves active participants of the community interested in the subject matter. This is a matter of "knowing who". OK, put it bluntly, the editors are not expert in the field!

The writers are self-selected. This is a matter of "knowing what". Presumably, the writers are active participants of the subject matter community. Here "self ego" applies. [The writers probably think they are the expert in the field.]

Britannica is part of a business whose objective is to maximize the return of investment. I am not saying whether it is good or bad at the point, just pointing out the fact and the implications. Hence, the subject matter of articles are selected to meet the need of the majority of potential readers. Obviously there would be a cut-off point where it was considered not worthy of inclusion if the number of potential readers of a particular article falls below a certain number. The long tail is typically cut off!

The business model of wikipedia does not depend on tight economic rationale to maximize return of investment. The cost of inclusion of articles catering for a small reader is near zero and hence not a factor in the decision in whether it should be included or not.

I cannot agree to the position that says "Let Wikipedia Be Wikipedia". Both Brittanica and Wikipedia are in the same market place competiting for market share (among other competitors). They both serve the need as a first place to look when someone encounters a new subject matter.

I also cannot agree to the position that says wikipedia is a little slop at the microscale [as] the price of such efficiency at the macroscale. [The Probabilistic Age] In time, Wikipedia would be efficient at microscale too. But Brittanica and Wikipedia are self-correcting (ie when errors or faults are found, later editors would correct them). However, Wikipedia obviously has a much shorter revision cycle and thus allow the self-correction to happen faster and more efficiently. There is not probability operating here. Yes, we may apply statistical methods to compare the articles against the illusive scale of quality. When you randomly pick an article, the quality of the article as measured may be calculated from the statistic as a probability. Each and every article has its own quality scale determined by the community of practice and frankly within any community of practice, I don't think a common quality scale can be defined easily.

Authorship and authority looks too similar to my liking (English is not my first langauge!). The fact that one has authored an article in a subject domain does not automatically assign the status of authority to that author. The days when only a selected few can author have long gone. Reputation is likely to be a good indicator of the authority status in a subject domain. However, reputation is NOT citation count. (I jokingly suggested that I could increase my citation count of an article by writing really stupidly and attacking the popular authors. Most of these authors would reply and hence my citation increases.) Reputation also does not diminish by being anonymous.

Being published by a reputable publisher also does not ensure reliability of information. An efficient self-correction mechanism is much valuable to the users of the information (at least in the market where Brittanica and Wikipedia are operating).

When there is no SINGLE best manifestation of any knowledge, the next best thing we can have is a dynamic manifestation of that knowledge domain, maintained by the community involved with that knowledge domain and have a short self-correction cycle.

Those academics who refuse to accept references to wikipedia from their students, please rethink your position. I don't think your argument is strong enough if you take away your self-interest.

My verdict: I will use wikipedia as my first point of research when I encounter a new subject domain.

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