Microsoft Encarta Concerned About Wikipedia?
Microsoft's Encarta must be feeling the pressure from Wikipedia. As traffic to the open-source, wiki-driven encyclopedia increases ...
... the folks at Microsoft must be wondering what it takes to keep people coming to its mainstream encyclopedia with its professionally written and edited articles.
In what must be an effort to compete head-to-head with Wikipedia, the folks at Encarta have decided to let readers be editors. Kind of. According to an AP story, readers will be able to suggest edits and additions, but editors will review them before incorporating them into Encarta articles.
The cost of handling the reviews will be offset by the vast numbers of people who will contribute content based on expertise Encarta's editors don't have, according to Gary Alt, editorial director. Editors and fact-checkers have been added to the staff to handle the edits Alt expects readers to contribute when the system goes live, perhaps as soon as this week.
The idea is a good one. I'm a regular Wikipedia user, but always approach the information skeptically since nobody enforces any professional standards for entries into the open-source encyclopedia. A former Encyclopedia Britannica editor, Robert McHenry, tested Wikipedia's standards by examining the entry on Alexander Hamilton; McHenry selected Hamilton because his birthdate is in dispute.
The Wikipedia article on Hamilton (as of November 4, 2004) uses the 1755 date without comment. Unfortunately, a couple of references within the body of the article that mention his age in certain years are clearly derived from a source that used the 1757 date, creating an internal inconsistency that the reader has no means to resolve. Two different years are cited for the end of his service as secretary of the Treasury; without resorting to another reference work, you can guess that at least one of them is wrong. The article is rife with typographic errors, styling errors, and errors of grammar and diction. No doubt there are other factual errors as well, but I hardly needed to fact-check the piece to form my opinion. The writing is often awkward, and many sentences that are apparently meant to summarize some aspect of Hamilton's life or work betray the writer's lack of understanding of the subject matter. A representative one runs thus:
‘Arguably, he set the path for American economic and military greatness, though the benefits might be argued.'
All these arguments aside, the article is what might be expected of a high school student, and at that it would be a C paper at best. Yet this article has been ‘edited' over 150 times. Some of those edits consisted of vandalism, and others were cleanups afterward. But how many Wikipedian editors have read that article and not noticed what I saw on a cursory scan? How long does it take for an article to evolve into a ‘polished, presentable masterpiece,' or even just into a usable workaday encyclopedia article?
The Encarta project appears to find a happy balance between community contributions and adherence to encyclopedic standards. Unfortunately, it's a model other organizations could follow only if they recognized the benefit that would accrue from the cost.
Encarta was already doing some interesting things for an encyclopedia. There's an Encarta blog, for example, a group effort with contributions by everyone from editors to programmers. The most recent entry to the blog-from editor David Hirning-indicates Encarta is only accepting edits to existing articles at this point, not new articles.
Sadly, that could be the factor that keeps Wikipedia on top. Alt notes that Encarta features 42,000 articles. Wikipedia has over 1 million, in multiple languages. New topics, like podcasting, find their way into Wikipedia almost immediately. Encarta still has no entry at all on podcasting.
Still, it's a step in the right direction for Encarta that suggests one day the value of an open-source effort like Wikipedia and the value of a professional offering that measures up to academic standards like Encarta can exist in one authoritative encyclopedia.
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About the Author:
Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.
As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.
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