Trustworthiness of online encyclopaedias

In its July Editorial Wouldn’t you like to know?, Nature Physics (4, 505; 2008) asks how much of the mass of information available online in encyclopaedic form can be trusted. The Editorial discusses various sources: Wikipedia, of course; Citizendium (with its associated Eduzendium); Scholarpedia ; and a brief mention of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which has just begun experimenting with user-generated input (although not noted in the Editorial).

Scholarpedia is the most recent of these resources, and says of itself that it “feels and looks like Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Indeed, both are powered by the same program – MediaWiki. Both allow visitors to review and modify articles simply by clicking on the edit this article link.” Scholarpedia is said to differ from Wikipedia in that each article is written by an expert (invited or elected by the public); anonymously peer reviewed to ensure accurate and reliable information; and has a curator – typically its author — who is responsible for its content and who has to approve any proposed modifications. The website claims that, by this method, “while the initial authorship and review processes are similar to a print journal so that Scholarpedia articles could be cited, they are not frozen and outdated, but dynamic, subject to an ongoing process of improvement moderated by their curators. This allows Scholarpedia to be up-to-date, yet maintain the highest quality of content.”

The Nature Physics verdict? “Expert authorship and curatorship of free online information are indeed welcome. If scientists embrace Scholarpedia, then perhaps the opportunity to make sure that their own favourite area is well represented in its pages — as well as the possibility of citations — will prove sufficient incentive to the hard-pressed experts. The potential is huge, and so is the challenge.”


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