Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Online Encyclopedias and Reliability

Which is the product name that comes to mind when talking about encyclopedias first? Well, I suppose it is Wikipedia (and not the Encyclopedia Britannica). I also assume that many people my age do have a multi-volume encyclopedia at home, but when did you last use it? As most people nowadays (including myself) do use Google for search, and as Wikipedia entries always show up as the first couple of search results, printed encyclopedias (or their counterparts on CD-ROM or DVD) increasingly seem to be a phenomenon of the past.

There are many criteria by which to judge an encyclopedia, some of which are timeliness, trustworthiness, comprehensibility, detailedness, elaborateness and others. Talking about Wikipedia, whose ideas was that everyone can contribute, correct and expand, a criticism was that you would never know if a given entry was reliable. On the other hand, the timeliness of Wikipedia seems to be unbeatable. Now, even though there is a team of editors that takes care of surveying updates, the question is that if they are really experts to be able to judge whether a contribution is not only correct, but also contains the major issues in a concise way.

Enter Brockhaus, which is more or less the German equivalent of the Encylopedia Britannica, that will unleash their online encyclopedia "for free" to the general public. (As nothing really is for free, this service will be paid via advertisements, and I do hope that I will not be annoyed by flashy banners). Does this mean that Wikipedia and Brockhaus entries will now be displayed side by side in Google (at least for German-speaking users)? Will there be a translated version of Brockhaus articles? What will be the return on investment (assuming that it also means the death for the printed version of the encyclopedia)? What will happen in order to keep the posted articles up to date? What feedback and collaboration mechanisms will there be in order to involve selected readers in an editorial process?

As it seems, timeliness is an increasingly important key factor. While it seems sufficient for ordinary (non-fiction) publications to have an updated version every couple of years, this is not enough regarding encyclopedias. And, last but not least, how to make sure that copyrighted articles in encyclopedias by ordinary publishing houses will not be copied to collaborative encyclopedias such as Wikipedia?

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