Wikipedia vs Encyclopaedia: A question of trust?

Wikipedia vs Encyclopaedia

To decide which is the best electronic encyclopaedia, you need some basis for comparison. You can look at the feature sets of each application and the ways in which you can access the information within them, but the main criterion has to be their content.

It’s not possible to be exhaustive in testing this, because of the amount of data held, but we picked a series of random subjects to see how each encyclopaedia handles them and what it provides.

We chose a series of subjects the team know a bit about, so we could assess the quality of the information provided. Wikipedia did better than either of the others on length and depth of article, photo and illustration numbers and extras, including things like the scientific classification of animals and timelines in its biographies.

The quality of content is good in all three cases with, for example, details of Brunel’s three key steamships and his Great Western Railway in the IK Brunel articles. Likewise, each gives a history of the microprocessor and ties it in with related articles on PCs and silicon chip production.

Wikipedia offered more useful information for each. Going back to Brunel, Wikipedia was the only one to list Hungerford Bridge across the Thames in London among his achievements. It’s also the only one to point out that binturong musk smells like warm popcorn.

And what about Microsoft Encarta?

You may wonder why Encarta is not included here. Microsoft’s press centre couldn’t get us a copy in over a fortnight and then told us there was no UK product manager. We checked the web and couldn’t find any UK source that stocks the 2008 version, though sites like Micro Direct and PCWB claim to be able to get it to order.

We suspect this will be the US version of the product, as there’s no indication of a localised UK Encarta. Wikipedia generally has more copy, often with greater factual content, than its DVD rivals.

Both Britannica and World Book have bigger online versions, available on annual subscription, but we’re comparing Wikipedia with DVD encyclopaedias.

In this context, as long as you have scepticism for any outlandish statements, Wikipedia is more comprehensive, more current and available everywhere for free. It’s a tough competitor.

The full version of this article is published in PC Plus magazine, issue 268.