Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Has the Internet destroyed faith in reference sources?

It used to be that if something was in the Encyclopedia Britannica (or even Grolier's), it was true. Now - thanks to Wikipedia - having "encyclopedic knowledge" of a topic isn't as impressive when there's a good chance most of what you think you know was concocted by a high-schooler. A 2005 study by the British journal Nature showed Britannica and Wikipedia to be almost equally inaccurate: In order to test its reliability, Nature conducted a peer review of scientific entries on Wikipedia and the well-established Encyclopedia Britannica.

The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told about the source of the information.

"Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia," reported Nature.

"But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively."

Faith in all encyclopedias plummeted. Britannica attacked that study's methodology as "fatally flawed," but it was too late.

Any professional publisher of non-fiction books (like ourselves) is going to want to ensure that the author knows what he/she is talking about and ask to see credentials as well as check the manuscript with other experts in the field. But nowadays anybody can post anything on the web, and it's usually enough for people wanting to find out info on a subject. So there is a heap of dubious information out there, and with the decline in journalism and book publishing that situation is getting steadily worse.

No comments: