Evaluation Of Various Free Online Encyclopedias English Language Essay


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Encyclopedias are good reference sources which provide objective and factual information. The earliest encyclopedia dates back to the 18th century and is still a relevant source of information today. Encyclopedias contain information that provides overview of multidisciplinary topics or in-depth coverage of a specific subject (Bopp & Smith, 2001).

Like all forms of information sources, the encyclopedia formats changes with time to adapt to new technology. This is crucial so that information sources stay relevant amidst the changing needs and demands of the users, or information seekers. Hence, in recent years, we have seen a trend of printed reference sources migrating to the digital and online format.

In this paper we evaluated and compared the three major encyclopedias namely, Wikipedia, free online Encyclopedia Britannica (Britannica), and World Encyclopedia based on the "APPARATUS" measurement criteria, along with context, and cost. We hope that with this paper, students and researchers can make an informed decision when selecting the appropriate encyclopedia or reference source for their work, and to be mindful of the pros and cons upon making the selection.


Today, students and researchers have many encyclopedias to choose from. Since the main role of encyclopedias is to provide information, it is therefore important to use a standard set of criteria to measure their reliability and accuracy. The "APPARATUS" measurement criteria covers the qualifications of the authors or editors, the purpose and format, the arrangement of information, the update frequency, the information accuracy, the editorial policy and style of the work, the target audience and the scope. In addition, the context and cost need to be considered as well.

2.1 Authority and Objectivity

Wikimedia Foundation Inc. is the parent of Wikipedia since 2003 but the site itself was launched in 2001 as a web-based encyclopedia that allows the collaboration of many anonymous internet volunteers (Wikipedia, 2010). Anyone with Internet access can write new Wikipedia entries or make changes to existing ones and the article can either be submitted anonymously or under their real name (Wikipedia, 2010). It can be considered that Wikipedia's strength in reliability lies in its community of writers, rather than its publishers. For instance, Wikipedia relies on this strong community spirit from volunteers to catch vandalistic edits or edit poor content. Additional tools to prevent or recover from vandalism are access control and version control. Hence, depending on the mindset of the contributor, it is possible for bias content to be published. For Wikipedia, content contribution is more important than the qualification of the contributor (Wikipedia, 2010). This may affect the quality and credibility of the article if a person wrote something in an area outside his expertise. On the other hand, this "free submission" process that Wikipedia follows can also be beneficial, as it allows subject specialists to share their knowledge and expertise easily. These industry veterans may want to avoid red tape and hassle of writing and publishing a scholarly or academic work about the subject. According to Wikipedia, since the start of the project, over 650,000 registered users have made at least ten edits on existing content (Wikipedia, 2010).

Encyclopedia Britannica is published by Britannica Encyclopedia, Inc., one of the pioneers in encyclopedia. Britannica Encyclopedia was first published in 18th century and is believed to be the world's oldest continuously published encyclopedia in English language. Years of experience plus contributions from authoritative subject specialists adds to its authoritativeness as an information source. Past contributors include Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom were luminaries in their own respective fields in their days (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Today, Britannica's editorial board of advisors comprise of Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as leading scholars, writers, artists, public servants, and activists who are experts in their own areas. One such authoritative Editorial Board member is Leslie H. Gelb, who holds the distinguished post of President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and was formerly assistant secretary of state in the United States, during the Jimmy Carter administration (Required?). Regular meetings are held among the editorial board of advisors to ensure that the encyclopedia's content remains objective, relevant and up to date. They are responsible for content development, soliciting manuscripts, indexing and editing - fact-checking, copy editing, page composition, as well as design. Besides Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. also publishes Merriam-Webster products and their Merriam-Webster dictionary is one of the oldest well-known English dictionaries around.

Octopus Publishing Group has nine imprints and one of them is Philip's Ltd. Philip's Ltd publishes World Encyclopedia and the online version is published under Oxford University Press. Philip's Ltd, Octopus Publishing Group and Oxford University Press are well known publishers for academic materials. Philip's is an authoritative brand name, as it has a long history of publishing maps, atlases and reference books in Britain. Similarly, Oxford University Press has an extensive background in scholarly publication - for example, the Oxford University Press was the publisher of the King James Authorized Version of the Bible in the 17th Century. The World Encyclopedia is the online version of Phillip's encyclopedia, and is available online as part of Oxford Reference Online. The author or editors of Philip's encyclopedia is not clearly evident on the World Encyclopedia page. However according to its publisher, Octopus, website, authors of its reference materials are all experts in their field. For instance, one of the authors under Octopus, Desmond Morris, is a leading zoologist and has written books on human and animal behavior (Required?). The author names are arranged alphabetically, with photographs. Thus, users are able to access the specific author's biography as well as their previous works. The downside is that the list of authors is not clearly defined according to the different reference materials published by Octopus. Hence, users who are looking for the list of contributing authors for World Encyclopedia specifically would not be able to easily access it.

2.2 Purposes

Wikipedia was created to provide free reference information in multiple languages and can be accessed online by anyone, anywhere with Internet connection. Wikipedia's articles provide links to guide the user to related pages with additional information. Available in more 30 languages to satisfy the users, Wikipedia is believed as the largest online encyclopedia. For Wikipedia, the process of communal content creation is regarded as its strength and unique selling point. In other words, users can create content and help to shape Wikipedia, their reference source. Therefore, it is a platform for both information referencing as well as information sharing.

Slightly different from Wikipedia, Britannica aim to be a reference source in a new era of scholarship and enlightenment (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). This implies that Britannica expects its information sources to be used by academia to cultivate knowledge and new ideas. In pursuit of this purpose, Britannica published several encyclopedias based on various user categories to suit their needs.

The World Encyclopedia on the other hand covers concise information on a range of subjects, from world affairs, science and technology, arts, sports to popular culture. With this broad overview of an assortment of different subjects, we can see that World Encyclopedia's purpose is to provide information for the public across different subjects, regardless of culture or age.

2.3 Physical Production

Unlike Britannica and World Encyclopedia which are available in both print and electronic format, Wikipedia is only available in electronic format. Hence, its intention to freely share information and serve users around the world contradicts the requirement for users to have Internet access to access that information.

Britannica is part of the online version of the print Britannica Encyclopedia. Although it is not as complete as the print version, it still serves the users who have limited funds to access the information. Printed encyclopedia sets can be expensive reference materials, partly due to the fact that the 32-volumes of print version of Britannica Encyclopedia is printed in hard cover in order to be strong enough to withstand heavy use.

Similarly, World Encyclopedia is also available both in electronic and print version to better serve its users and its print copy is published in hard cover to give better protection for prolonged usage. Therefore, depending on users' preference, they are able to access both formats of encyclopedia. However, having an online version of encyclopedia makes their content more accessible to users. For the purpose of this paper, we only evaluated and compared their online versions.

2.4 Arrangement

On the main page of Wikipedia, a list of different options including export and language (more than 30 languages) is displayed on the left column of the page. Export options include downloading in PDF, creating a book and viewing the printable version. Wikipedia has a unique export option - the 'Book Creator' tool, which allows users to easily create their own 'books' from Wikipedia articles. The bulk of the page displays featured article of the day, current events, "Did You Know" and "On This Day", this helps to highlight interesting segments of Wikipedia's massive content catalogue, which users might not notice if they were not searching for that particular topic. As Wikipedia puts it - there are two ways to look things up in Wikipedia, "by searching or by browsing" (Wikipedia, 2010). The articles in Wikipedia are arranged according to subject, and information in each subject is arranged differently based on the nature of the subject.

Similar to Wikipedia, information arrangement is shown on the main page of Britannica. Generally, the information is arranged by subject, followed by alphabetically for each subject. Users are also given an option "A-Z Browse" to browse all articles alphabetically. Other content categories such as "World Atlas", "On This Day", "Timelines", "World Data Analyst", "Magazine Browse", and "Compare Countries" are available only for premium subscribers and not for free access. Hence, they could not be examined for this paper. Unlike the two encyclopedias, World Encyclopedia can only be arranged alphabetically.

2.5 Recency

Ease and speed of update are two of the advantages of Wikipedia leading to high update frequency. For instance, articles on historic events can appear on Wikipedia within minutes. "Recent Changes" shows all the updates done on Wikipedia, while "View History" at article level shows the updates done on that article.

Unlike Wikipedia, both Britannica and World Encyclopedia are updated annually based on its print edition. The update version is usually published as a new edition. In our opinion, annual updates are better than continuous year-long update. Even though the updates might not be as current, they can have better information quality due to editors taking time to verify the information before they published the update.

2.6 Accuracy

As Wikipedia is a live collaborative effort, differing from paper-based reference sources, users have to be aware of the possibility of misinformation, disinformation, unencyclopedic content and vandalism. For instance, in 2005, vandal(s) created a slanderous entry that accused a former newspaper editor of playing a role in the John F. Kennedy assassinations (Seigenthaler, 2005). Nonetheless, wrong information on Wikipedia, whether intentional or accidental, can be easily removed. Moreover, there are many experienced editors who are monitoring the content to help ensure consistency and quality, using Wikipedia's own style guide. However the quick, almost instant changes may still lead the users to doubt the quality of information in Wikipedia especially for use in research or scholarly reports. On the other hand, users are encouraged to contribute quality articles because articles can be reviewed and graded according to Wikipedia's own criteria. Such 'good articles' are currently reserved for about 6500 of 3 million pages in English (Chandler-Olcott, 2009).

In Britannica, the editors are tasked to review or revise the content after doing cross checking review with the experts. The content editors are experienced editors and subject area specialists, many of whom hold a Ph.D. or other advanced degrees in their field. Similarly, world data experts research and compile statistical information for the encyclopedia from a wide variety of authoritative sources. Thus, based on the expertise of the contributing editors, we can be assured of the content's accuracy.

Similar to Britannica, the World Encyclopedia is the collaborative work of authors who are all experts in their field. However, they also engage experts whom may not hold distinguished degrees but are nonetheless well-known expert in their own fields, such as chefs, wine experts, parenting experts or crystal healers. With this, World Encyclopedia is able to provide users with in-depth, specific information which may not be found in scholarly references.

2.7 Treatment

Wikipedia has a full style and content manual and a variety of processes in place to allow for continual article review and improvement. Examples of the processes include peer review, good article assessment, and the featured article process. Such rigorous review allow for higher standards of articles. In addition, specific subjects often have their own specialized and comprehensive projects, assessment processes, and expert reviewers. Further to that, Wikipedia is supported with procedures to handle abuse and vandalism issues. Unresolved issues between editors, for instance, due to differing editorial approach or validity of content, can be handled through features such as the talk page of an article, through requesting comments from other editors, or through Wikipedia's dispute resolution process.

Similar to Wikipedia, Britannica has their long-standing policy that signed articles are reserved for in-depth treatments. This is to ensure the quality of information in the encyclopedia. Recently, Britannica has adopted an approach that acknowledges contributions from all elements of their editors, contributors, and readers. However, the method of how Britannica Encyclopedia, Inc. resolve dispute between editors or others parties are not clearly mentioned.

The editorial policy is also not mentioned clearly in the World Encyclopedia and its publisher, Octopus's website. However, it is mentioned that they undertake to handle the information securely and to comply with all current Data Protection legislation.

2.8 Users

Wikipedia is meant for everyone regardless of age, culture and background. With its wide coverage on different topics, it does not classify the contents by education level or age. In our opinion, Britannica targets students and casual learners. We can tell this based on the user-interface of the online site, which features a lot of images and colour, thus making it more user-friendly for non-scholars. Besides that, they also published Britannica Online for Kids, which feature articles written specifically for children aged 6 to 14, as well as publishing the Student Encyclopedia which focuses on the needs of students.

The World Encyclopedia's target audience is not clearly stated. However, based on its simple, no-frills interface, and the fact that it was published by Octopus publishing and Oxford University press, we can assume that their target audience is academia. We will get a better picture of the target audience for each of the online encyclopedias upon comparing their contents in the next section of this paper.

2.9 Scope

All three online encyclopedias cover a large range of topics, including arts, sciences, history and technology. This is the nature of the general encyclopedia as a reference format, where there is broad subject coverage. In Wikipedia's case, this is especially true because of its open concept which allows everyone to contribute an article on any topic they wish. Due to its name branding as a leading source for maps, the World Encyclopedia has an additional content scope - that being world history and world maps (is this true?). The Britannica offers unique content in terms of niche subject areas, with its wide range of contributing authors such as new age crystal healers and chefs.

2.10 Context

All three encyclopedias have their own unique design interface. The Wikipedia pages are all structured similarly, according to its own in-house style guide. Out of the three, it has the most basic design. The typeface is reader-friendly, with consistent use of font and simple colour palette. Wikipedia has simple search capabilities - its basic search consists of a single search bar on all the pages that will allow for full-text keyword search (Figure 1.). The Advanced Search options are equally simple, with the addition of selecting which Wikipedia section to search (Figure 2.).

The Britannica appears more user-friendly, appealing and interactive in contrast to Wikipedia. It is less text-heavy and has more visuals and colours. For instance, the main page consists mostly of coloured tabs and images, instead of words (Figure 3.). There are both Basic and Advanced Search options. Basic Search consists of a free-text search bar on the header of each page, whilst Advanced Search allows for phrase searching, and specific search options - 'with all of these words'; 'with any of these words'; 'without these words' (Figure 4.). These may be Boolean search operators, but they are not explicitly spelt out. Hence, users who have no prior knowledge of Boolean operators will be able to conduct an Advanced Search.

On the main page of the World Encyclopedia, users do not see any content at all, except for a single search bar allowing users to search within the encyclopedia (Figure 5.). After clicking 'Browse This Book', an alphabetical list of all the entries in the encyclopedia is displayed (Figure 6.). Hence, with the sparse design, we can see that the World Encyclopedia keeps the most to the traditional print format. Unlike Wikipedia, where hyperlinks leading users to related articles are used frequently in-text, World Encyclopedia keeps in-text hyperlinks to a minimum, most pages having one hyperlink to a related article, while some have none.

2.11 Cost

Cost is the one of important aspects for a user to consider when purchasing an encyclopedia, even electronic ones. Wikipedia and Britannica are available for free access, whereas World Encyclopedia requires subscription. Hence, in terms of cost, using World Encyclopedia as a reference source would mean incurring initial subscription as well as recurring fees. Intangible costs such as manpower costs are also incurred when these three electronic encyclopedias are used. Technical support staff will need to be deployed to assist users in using the online encyclopedias, for instance, to use the Advanced Search options in Britannica. Staff will also need to conduct user education workshops for users so that they can make the most out of the encyclopedia's features, for instance, Wikipedia's Book Creator, which is unique to Wikipedia and possibly new to users.

3 Contents Comparison

In this section, we evaluated the results of basic search of DNA fingerprint, photosynthesis, global warming, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in these three encyclopedias.

3.1 DNA fingerprint

Wikipedia redirects users from its inactive "DNA fingerprint" page to "DNA Profiling" page. The result of the search was comprehensive. It covered the definition, the inventor, the process, and links to other subjects that are closely related to DNA profiling such as forensic science and criminal cases. The information was well-structured thus helping the users to understand the content better. Hyperlinks to references and external sources and images if any are also provided.

The Britannica brings the users to "DNA fingerprinting" page where the search results showed brief information compared to Wikipedia's. Hyperlinks to related references and external websites are provided and videos and images are also embedded in the result page. The Britannica provides examples on how to cite its result page. This is not available in Wikipedia and we think this is very useful for the users.

Different from the two encyclopedias, World Encyclopedia did not index DNA fingerprint and DNA profiling, DNA was indexed instead. Due to the formatting of the text, users might find it hard to read the definition given. The World Encyclopedia should consider the way it organize and present information so that the information would be easier to read. The World Encyclopedia also provided examples on how to cite the result.

3.2 Photosynthesis

Wikipedia gave a comprehensive result when the users search for "Photosynthesis". The result contained information for photosynthesis both from biology and chemistry point of view. It also provided photosynthesis chemical reaction, images, and related hyperlinks to other sources and references. The resulting content was divided into sections to allow easy navigation by users.

Instead of giving the users all the information about photosynthesis, Britannica gave the users a list of links to photosynthesis in different topics, for example, photosynthesis (biology), photosynthesis (agriculture), chemical reaction. It was good because the users could locate their information faster. Images, videos, and hyperlinks to other related resources, references, and the example how to cite the page result were also provided. Unlike the other two encyclopedias, World Encyclopedia did not have much information about photosynthesis. It only gave brief information about the definition of photosynthesis and no hyperlinks, images, or example of how to cite were available.

3.3 Global warming

This is a broad and popular topic. Wikipedia gave a comprehensive discussion about global warming, from the definition, causes, feedback, climate models, systems and even politics. The table of content enables users to navigate the result and provide a whole picture about the result. The information in every section was well organized. A list of references and future readings were also provided.

In Britannica, many topics related to global warming were list down in the first page of the result. It allowed the users to select the topic that was relevant to their need. Videos, images, and hyperlinks related to the topics were also provided. World Encyclopedia did not have much information about global warming although this topic is broad. Only the definition of global warming could be found with no hyperlinks, images, and example of how to cite given.

3.4 Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Similar to global warming, Wikipedia gave a comprehensive explanation about Gross Domestic Product (GDP), including its economic perspective. It also had a list of hyperlinks related to each country. This was good because the users could select the GDP of specific country which they were interested. The information was well organized with explanations easy to follow. Table of content and list of references were also provided.

Britannica listed down the hyperlinks of GDP for each specific topic so that the users could navigate their search faster. Videos, images, and hyperlinks related to the topics were also provided. For World Encyclopedia, the search resulted in only the definition and an example on how to cite the page were given.

4 Conclusion

1. Wiki: Anyone can contribute, publish easily, no need for red tape. Allows for subject specialists who may not necessarily be keen on publishing a written reference source, to share their knowledge and expertise with others.

2. Britannica and The World Encyclopedia: more for academic ?

3. The world encyclopedia is not as comprehensive as Britannica & Wiki

Would you use any of these encyclopedias in your professional or academic work? Tpl: I will use Wiki but have to validate the information.

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