Britannica bends

The Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that they will be cracking open the door on their writing process, just a little bit. They note that collaborative work “is something we’ve always done in creating Encyclopaedia Britannica.” Although this echoes a bit doublespeak (“We have always been at war with Oceania.”), it is essentially true. They argue, however, that this process has never been democratic, and that they do not wish it to be. They argue that the way they do things is different for three reasons: ownership, expertise, and objectivity. Unfortunately, I don’t think they provide a very useful explanation of these benefits.

They begin with “ownership,” which, they are at pains to explain, has nothing to do with property. I believe they are trying for something more like “stewardship.” In any case, their claim is that because they are willing to “stand behind” the product they release, it will be stronger for it. In other words, we can trust their encyclopedia, because we trust them.

There is something to this. I trust my doctor because of where he went to school, where he practices, and in this case, where he teaches. Yes, I also checked his performance, as best I could, but I accept that institutions invest reputation in the people that they choose to affiliate with. This doesn’t mean that reputation is always strong: just because Microsoft “stands behind” or “takes ownership” of WindowsMe doesn’t make it a better product than Ubuntu, which (arguably!) is a product of people standing around together instead. So, basically they are making an appeal to traditional authority: we’ve done well in the past, and we will continue to do well. Wikipedia asks you to trust in the process, not in the producers.

Second, Britannica claims they are different because they value experts. What are experts? That is a really good question.

The plan for the new site goes to great lengths to increase the relationships we have with thousands of our current contributors as well as with new experts recommended or identified by the user community. We are calling this larger group our new “community of scholars.”

They make it sound as if they invented that phrase! Now, let’s play the reversal game. If I gave you the phrase quoted above, would you be able to tell whether it applied to Britannica’s new venture, or to Wikipedia? No, I didn’t think so. On Wikipedia, experts are also established, based not on popular vote of expertise (except in the strange and wild world of biographical entries), but on the utility of the work they present on the wiki. They may well be considered an expert by others in their field, but if they cannot translate that expertise into something useful to the Wikipedia community, they aren’t really worthwhile.

Second, it is worth noting that Wikipedia draws on expertise as well, basically piggybacking on structures of peer-review and expertise vetting in the real world, by requiring citation. It is, in practice, a site for summarizing expertise that has already been expressed in the world. This is at least one definition of what an encyclopedia should do. Is there really a need for experts if the work is essentially summarizing existing publications?

Finally, they attack what I think is probably one of the week points of Wikipedia, its NPOV standard, and propose an even worse one: “objectivity.” I wonder if they considered chatting with their “experts” before making this claim. Experts take on an informed and experienced view, but there is rarely a claim that this is somehow an “unbiased” view. To quote from the Britannica article on biology:

This emerging social and political role of the biologist and all other scientists requires a weighing of values that cannot be done with the accuracy or the objectivity of a laboratory balance. As a member of society, it is necessary for a biologist now to redefine his social obligations and his functions, particularly in the realm of making judgments about such ethical problems as man’s control of his environment or his manipulation of genes to direct further evolutionary development.

There are some 50 further mentions of “objectivity” in other articles, but none that provide an unproblematic description of what that word really means. Does an expert married to her topic really provide an objective summary? Does Kropotkin’s article on Anarchism, for example, represent the average expert’s view, or does it provide an impassioned perspective?

Unfortunately, and like Wikipedia in some ways, it is not clear which experts are writing the articles, since the “ownership” is by EB, and not the expert, these days. Particularly, for some articles–say, for example, on “chiropractic” or on “abortion”–if they are providing an objective commentator, I really want to know who that commentator is. Transparency, here, is a friend of evaluation.

In sum, if I understand correctly, Britannica is adopting the plan that Nupedia had, lo, so many years ago. Maybe they will be able to make that work, and as Weinberger suggests, it can’t hurt to have a variety of different approaches in play.

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