Encyclopedia Britannica to let readers contribute, à la Wikipedia

June 18th, 2008

Company’s site invites public to contribute, wiki-style, with rules to guard credibility

When I was young, encyclopedias were the Web. I was aware that there was a hierarchy of encyclopedias, with the World Book serving the low end for young students and the Encyclopedia Britannica for those in high school and beyond. The Britannica was so intellectual that they even uses funny letters in their name: Encyclopædia Britannica. My family had a mid-range Encyclopedia set (Colliers) and I spent many hours lost in browsing through it.

Britannica started a Web version, Britannica online, in 1996 that is primarily a paid service ($70/year) with more limited free services. Now they are opening up their pages to allow the public to make suggested additions and changes, as reported in the San Jose Mercury News, Britannica opens its online pages.

“By inviting a larger range of people to contribute and collaborate, we can produce more coverage,” said Britannica spokesman Tom Panelas. “People in the community can contribute to the improvement of Encyclopedia Britannica.”

The new site will not be a free-for-all. The core encyclopedia will continue to be edited and will bear the imprimatur “Britannica Checked.” But Britannica will now let outsiders create articles, essays and multi-media presentations. There will be proper attribution. And Britannica still keeps gatekeepers; don’t expect an entry on “Baywatch” actress Pamela Anderson.

Earlier this year, Britannica announced a program granting free access to bloggers and online journalists.

“Bloggers, webmasters, online journalists and anyone else who publishes regularly on the Internet can now get free subscriptions to Britannica Online (www.britannica.com). Anyone interested in participating in Britannica’s new WebShare initiative can apply for a free subscription at http://signup.eb.com or get more information at http://britannicanet.com.

These are clearly smart moves on Britannica’s part, as Wikipedia has shown that their users do a great job of keeping the entries accurate and up to date. A question in my mind is whether Britannica online’s paid subscriber base, even when augmented with free subscriptions, will be large enough, and has sufficient breadth, and motivated to keep its entries current. A second issue is whether this commercial approach will benefit from the technological experimentation and enhancements that can come with an “open source” approach, e.g., what Dbpedia and Freebase and others have done with Wikipedia content.