Seriously Can We End This Debate Already

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Yesterday @SybilV posted a comment via Twitter during a library orientation for her class:


An innocent enough of a gesture one could assume. What I took Sybil’s point to be, was that Britannica is not a good scholarly source, and that the library should be encouraging other/more appropriate research practices (like, you know using scholarly sources, and judging credibility and bias). But what also struck me about this was the odd moment when librarians are encouraging students to use the encyclopedia as a source. And, perhaps I read too much into this, but I think the librarians gesture comes as a correction to Wikipedia, i.e. the subtext here is “Don’t use Wikipedia use Britannica.” This might be my bias, or my way of reading things, so fair enough I didn’t respond to Sybil’s tweet. But, apparently Britannica has a Twitter account, and the person who manages the account noticed Sybil’s tweet and decided to respond:


Shocked to see that Britannica was on Twitter I couldn’t resist and posted the following:


Well needless to say it was all downhill (or shits and giggles depending on your perspective) from there. I won’t recount the blow, by blow, mainly cause it gets really long, and the person who Tweets from @Britannica obviously feels passionate about defending Britannica, and at one point posted nine straight tweets defending the appropriateness of Britannica as a scholarly source.

A few notes might be worth making at this point: 1. I am not speaking for @SybilV here, these are my opinions, and I have a sense that my tone if not also my stance is more radical/ contentious than hers. 2. I have no idea if the account @Britannica is an official Britannica Twitter account. I looked at the Britannica page and couldn’t find it listed. So, the account might just be a Britannica fan, or an employee who unofficially Tweets from that account. I don’t know, but I think we can take the arguments that @Britannica makes as indicative of those who champion this encyclopedia and its format.

It seems to me that with all the tweets sent back and forth, with others in the Twitterverse adding to the discussion, the central issue was “What is the appropriate use/role for Britannica in relation to society and specifically academia?”

So here’s the thing: 1. It has none. 2. This is because of Wikipedia.

Don’t get me wrong I am not disparaging Britannica, not really. It had a role, and generally speaking it served it well, but:


Yes, Britannica is a pretty good secondary source. It has a lot of advantages as a secondary source. Articles are fairly thorough, contain citations, and are more or less accurate, but as a secondary source it doesn’t even come close to the value of something like Wikipedia. Thirty years ago, heck even ten years ago, Britannica was arguably the best secondary source around. If you wanted to get a quick overview of a specific subject Britannica was a good place to start, a good portal to gaining deep knowledge about a subject.

In a world of dead-tree based knowledge the central authority, hierarchically controlled way of organizing, was a good thing. When you only have so many pages, you can’t reprint frequently, and distribution is expensive, these are good decisions. But in a digital networked information structure these are not.

What you want from a secondary source is a good introduction to a concept, that is mostly reliable, up-to-date, entries for as many topics as possible, connections to where to go to learn more, and easy and ubiquitous (as possible) access. A secondary source is not an in depth analysis which upon reading one is suddenly an expert on said entry or topic, it’s not designed to be. It is just a good overview. No secondary source is going to be completely accurate, or engage in the level of detail and nuance which we want from students, or that is required to fully “know” about a subject.

This is why the Wikipedia banning by schools and professors has always struck me as a particularly stupid policy. The issue is not that Wikipedia is or is not reliable and thus should be banned in academic environments, rather the issue is that Wikipedia is a secondary source and thus should not be treated as a primary one. But, this also holds true for Britannica. Any syllabus which contains language about banning Wikipedia misses this point. Ban secondary sources from student work, not Wikipedia in particular as this confuses the issue. This doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t use secondary sources, indeed they should they are great ways to begin to learn about a subject. It just means they should not cite secondary sources, they should always look for primary ones, and that they should never take Wikipedia or Britannica as the final word on a subject. I don’t recall a single syllabus from my college days (pre-Wikipedia) that said “do not use Britannica as a source for your papers, doing so will result in failing the assignment.” Seriously, professors explained to us what reference books were for, and how to correctly use them.

Several semesters ago I wrote a piece defending Wikipedia and arguing that it was irresponsible to not teach students about how to use Wikipedia. I won’t rehash those arguments here, but I will reference one objection made in the comments of this article, which I often hear when I talk about Wikipedia:

MY guess is that the author wouldn’t want his doctor to base his latest surgery on a Wikipedia article.

Of course not, don’t be stupid, I wouldn’t want my doctor to be educated by Wikipedia, but I wouldn’t want my doctor to be educated by Britannica either. The role of Wikipedia isn’t to train heart surgeons how to perform a bypass, nor is it the role of Britannica, that is not the function of these objects. To hold Wikipedia to this standard is more than a bit ridiculous. Wikipedia doesn’t strive to be an object that teaches doctors how to operate (although it seems that Britannica might be trying to claim this ground).


We could argue about the accuracy of Wikipedia, although studies show that it is as accurate as Britannica, or about the policy that “any one can edit,” at least with Wikipedia I can view the editing history, or we could argue about the problems on Wikipedia, of which there are many (bland prose, serious debates between inclusionists and deletionist, its Western-English bias, an increasing bureaucratic control structure, among others). But what really isn’t arguable at this point is that as a broad overview of knowledge, a good place to start an inquiry, Wikipedia is a killer app.

When it comes to functioning as a secondary source, a reference guide, Wikipedia has substantial advantages over any prior encyclopedia model. In the same way that Britannica’s model of “get experts in a field to write specific articles” was a vast improvement over the prior model “get the smartest person to write the whole encyclopedia,” Wikipedia is a substantial improvement over Britannica. (Sorry folks at Britannica, this is just the way it is. P.S. While you are at it you might want to sell your stock in 8-tracks, newspapers, and scriptoriums.) The breadth of knowledge, its ability to be linked to other knowledge, its cost (free), its up-to-dateness, and its preservation of editorial discussions (it records not only the article but the discussion which produced said article) makes it far more useful. And that doesn’t even begin to address things like how much easier Wikipedia is to use for mash-ups and data extraction, repurposing the information for other reference works.

To illustrate this point I make the following challenge:
I hereby challenge any employee of Britannica to a game of trivial pursuit. You can consult Britannica Online for any question, and I can consult Wikipedia. Want to take bets on who will win? (I’ll even let you have all 15 print editions as well). We could also play “Who Want’s to Be a Millionaire?” of “Jeopardy” if you want.

So, this is the bind that Britannica is caught in. It can market itself as a secondary source: we are a great reference tool. But if it does this, someone can easily point out that Wikipedia is a better secondary source, and free (in other words libraries can spend dwindling resources on other primary materials). Or, it can claim to be a great primary source, a role it simply can’t fulfill. It simply doesn’t have a place anymore, there are better services doing what it did.

Now seriously, can we end this debate already. Instead lets talk to students about how appropriately to use secondary sources, how to understand how encyclopedias function, how all encyclopedias are biased, all knowledge is discursive, and focus on teaching students how to judge credibility and accuracy instead of outsourcing it to people at Britannica.