Friday, October 9, 2009

Know It All

1. In her extensive article, Stacy Schiff brings up a few key points. The first is an introduction and sweeping description of the Wikipedia phenomenon. Schiff brings attention to the sheer size of Wikipedia, or rather, the lack of limitations thereon. This opens up a running comparison of Wikipedia to Encyclopædia Britannica. For example, Encyclopædia Britannica, considered the "gold standard for reference work", has only 120,000 entries in its largest edition, while Wikipedia has well over 8.7 million. However, Schiff writes, one of Wikipedia's biggest criticisms is accuracy. With so many articles being edited by millions of contributors, most of whom are not experts, how can the information be trusted? This is not to say that Encyclopædia Britannica is flawless. In fact, there is even a list on Wikipedia of the errors in Encyclopædia Britannica that Wikipedia has corrected. Schiff goes on to describe the birth of Wikipedia, its staffing and operation, and the Wikipedia community - the community of contributors to the site.

2. "Is Wikipedia accurate? Last year, Nature published a survey comparing forty-two entries on scientific topics on Wikipedia with their counterparts in Encyclopædia Britannica. According to the survey, Wikipedia had four errors for every three of Britannica’s, a result that, oddly, was hailed as a triumph for the upstart. Such exercises in nitpicking are relatively meaningless, as no reference work is infallible. Britannica issued a public statement refuting the survey’s findings, and took out a half-page advertisement in the Times, which said, in part, “Britannica has never claimed to be error-free. We have a reputation not for unattainable perfection but for strong scholarship, sound judgment, and disciplined editorial review.” Later, Jorge Cauz, Britannica’s president, told me in an e-mail that if Wikipedia continued without some kind of editorial oversight it would “decline into a hulking mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles.” Wales has said that he would consider Britannica a competitor, “except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within five years.”
This paragraph opens with a very simple question. The question "Is Wikipedia accurate?" is the main idea of the paragraph as well as one of the main ideas for the entire article. Schiff's supporting detail in the paragraph makes the answer somewhat tangible with the fact that Wikipedia has four errors for every three of Encyclopædia Britannica's. Schiff then brings up the important point that no reference work is infallible. This paragraph both answers this question and supports the author's opinion.

3. Putting the question of accuracy aside, I favor Wikipedia's design to Encyclopædia Britannica's website and physical volumes in my day-to-day life. To me, the function of Wikipedia is to provide me with general knowledge about a subject, and the website carries out that function without fail. I don't use Wikipedia for scientific research - that need is better fulfilled by text books and research articles. The main page is simple, and once you reach it you automatically are prompted to type in the subject of your curiosity, and once you hit enter, there it is, instantly. Quick, efficient, and simple. All qualities of a good design.

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