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Nature journal study results ignite encyclopedia wars

The Encyclopedia Britannica, self-proclaimed as one of "the world's most trusted sources of information on every topic imaginable" is reeling from current comparison of the accuracy of its articles to that of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

The scholarly journal Nature, which publishes science news, found that when comparing 42 pairs of science articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Wikipedia for factual errors, omissions and misleading statements, the error rate among them is nearly the same.

Nature's study and its findings, published late last year, have fueled the debate well into March, with the continued exchange of press releases between Britannica, Wikipedia and Nature itself.

In a 20 page rebuttal and analysis of the study in question, Britannica's editors said that "the study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit" and "Britannica was far more accurate than Wikipedia according to the figures; the journal simply misrepresented its own results."

In response, Nature published the length and breadth of its findings for public scrutiny, and doggedly stood by its story.

For many students and young adults, however, the issue isn't only about accuracy-it's also about cost. An annual subscription for the Britannica Online is $70, a monthly subscription about $12.

Mills Reference and Access Services Librarian Michael Beller says "The idea that information is free and people create it and offer it for free really affects me-I like that a lot. The concept of Wikipedia is one I just love. But I feel as a librarian, I have a natural bias against it."

Beller points out that Mills students have access to no less than 64 types of online research portals through the "Databases and Electronic Resources" section of the library Web site-"Great scholarly databases" he says.

As for a student's perspective on Wikipedia, "I use it when I have nothing else but really, I never could trust it," says Mills senior Catherine Abboud. "It is not clear enough and full of errors."

"Britannica doesn't provide anything Wikipedia does not to justify the cost," says Rutgers University senior Michael Hornby. "Since Wikipedia is used by so many people, any incorrect information is quickly corrected by another user, and everything is quickly verifiable elsewhere on the Internet."

Not so, says Beller. "I understand that they say it's public moderated, but there's an awful lot to be said for standard peer-review processes"

Students may use Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for more in-depth research, but most turn to sources like Lexis-Nexis for reliable information.

"I think that a lot of students who do not know better may use it," says Abboud, "but I think that we should rely on academic journals or even Non-Governmental Organizations or other professional organizations to provide us with the info that we need."

Beller says, "The Encyclopedia Britannica is a great place to go for basic information, but I think once you reach the college level, you should probably be using things besides encyclopedias in your research-we have books, we have periodicals, once you get into higher levels of education you can use the encyclopedia, but only up to a point."