The Idea of Reference
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The Wikipedia was touted
as the greatest reference work in history. A collaborative effort of
contributors and editors across time and space, it bloated into hundreds of
thousands of articles on subjects both deserving and risible. Anyone with a
connection to the Internet and a browser can edit the Wikipedia, regardless of
his or her qualifications to do so.
Events in 2005-6 exposed the underbelly and weaknesses of this mammoth
enterprise. Entries are routinely vandalized, libel and falsities often find
their way into existing articles as a way to settle scores, manipulate public
opinion, or express outrage.
The prestigious magazine "Nature" studied Wikipedia articles on the sciences
and found them similar in quality to peer reviewed and edited encyclopedias.
Indeed, the problems cluster around the entries that deal with the softer edges
of the human experience (where everyone feels qualified to comment and edit):
the social "sciences", the humanities, arts and entertainment, politics, current
affairs, celebrities, and the like. It is there that "edit wars" and thrashing
are most ripe. The result is that nigh close to 90% of the Wikipedia contain
highly dubious material and attract the least qualified "experts" and "editors".
This seems to prove the point that the gaining and preservation of knowledge
should not be subjected to a democratic process (or, as in the Wikipedia's case,
mob rule). As the promoters of "intelligent design" are finding out, what we
learn cannot and must not be decided by vocal protests and voting.
The acquisition of expertise and its propagation across the generations by
means of works of reference should remain an elitist endeavor. The mechanisms of
peer-review and editorial board are far from fail-proof. But they do guarantee a
modicum of accuracy and objectivity which the Wikipedia gravely fails to do.
There are examples of online encyclopedias that actually adhere to basic
principles: their authors and editors are qualified to write about the topics
they have chosen or have been assigned, and the entries are largely accurate and
unbiased. The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is one example. The
Open Site Encyclopedia is a
hybrid, a cross between the Wikipedia and the SEP models.
The Wikipedia is often contrasted with the crown jewel of encyclopedias, the
There is no source of reference remotely as authoritative as the
There is no brand as venerable and as veteran as this mammoth labour of
knowledge and ideas established in 1768. There is no better value for money.
And, after a few sputters and bugs, it now comes in all shapes and sizes,
including two CD-ROM versions (standard and deluxe) and an appealing and
reader-friendly web site. So, why does it always appear to be on the brink of
The Britannica provides for an interesting study of the changing fortunes
(and formats) of vendors of reference. As late as a decade ago, it was still
selling in a leather-imitation bound set of 32 volumes. As print encyclopaedias
went, it was a daring innovator and a pioneer of hyperlinked-like textual
design. It sported a subject index, a lexical part and an alphabetically
arranged series of in-depth essays authored by the best in every field of human
When the CD-ROM erupted on the scene, the Britannica mismanaged the
transition. As late as 1997, it was still selling a sordid text-only compact
disc which included a part of the encyclopaedia. Only in 1998, did the
Britannica switch to multimedia and added tables and graphs to the CD. Video and
sound were to make their appearance even later. This error in trend analysis
left the field wide open to the likes of Encarta and Grolier. The Britannica
failed to grasp the irreversible shift from cumbersome print volumes to slender
and freely searchable CD-ROMs. Reference was going digital and the Britannica's
The Britannica was also late to cash on the web revolution - but, when it
did, it became a world leader overnight. Its unbeatable brand was a decisive
factor. A failed experiment with an annoying subscription model gave way to
unrestricted access to the full contents of the Encyclopaedia and much more
besides: specially commissioned articles, fora, an annotated internet guide,
news in context, downloads and shopping. The site enjoys healthy traffic and the
Britannica's CD-ROM interacts synergistically with its contents (through
Yet, recently, the Britannica had to fire hundreds of workers (in its web
division) and return to a pay-for-content model. What went wrong again? Internet
advertising did. The Britannica's revenue model was based on monetizing
eyeballs, to use a faddish refrain. When the perpetuum mobile of "advertisers
pay for content and users get it free" crumbled - the Britannica found itself in
familiar dire straits.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this arduous and convoluted tale? Are
works of reference not self-supporting regardless of the revenue model
(subscription, ad-based, print, CD-ROM)? This might well be the case.
Classic works of reference - from Diderot to the Encarta - offered a series
of advantages to their users:
- Authority - Works of reference are authored by experts in their fields and
peer-reviewed. This ensures both objectivity and accuracy.
- Accessibility - Huge amounts of material were assembled under one "roof".
This abolished the need to scour numerous sources of variable quality to
obtain the data one needed.
- Organization - This pile of knowledge was organized in a convenient and
recognizable manner (alphabetically or by subject).
Moreover, authoring an encyclopaedia was such a daunting and expensive task
that only states, academic institutions, or well-funded businesses were able to
produce them. At any given period there was a dearth of reliable encyclopaedias,
which exercised a monopoly on the dissemination of knowledge. Competitors were
few and far between. The price of these tomes was, therefore, always exorbitant
but people paid it to secure education for their children and a fount of
knowledge at home. Hence the long gone phenomenon of "door to door encyclopaedia
salesmen" and instalment plans.
Yet, all these advantages were eroded to fine dust by the Internet. Wikipedia
aside, the web offers a plethora of highly authoritative information authored
and released by the leading names in every field of human knowledge and
endeavour. The Internet, is, in effect, an encyclopaedia - far more detailed,
far more authoritative, and far more comprehensive that any encyclopaedia can
ever hope to be. The web is also fully accessible and fully searchable. What it
lacks in organization it compensates in breadth and depth and recently emergent
subject portals (directories such as Yahoo! or The Open Directory) have become
the indices of the Internet. The aforementioned anti-competition barriers to
entry are gone: web publishing is cheap and immediate. Technologies such as web
communities, chat, and e-mail enable massive collaborative efforts. And, most
important, the bulk of the Internet is free. Users pay only the communication
The long-heralded transition from free content to fee-based
information may revive the fortunes of online reference vendors. But as long as
the Internet - with its 5,000,000,000 (!) visible pages (and 5 times as many
pages in its databases) - is free, encyclopaedias have little by way of a
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and ebookweb.org and the editor
of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory,
Suite101 and searcheurope.com. Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor
to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-11-03 20:36:05 in Computer Articles