Encyclopaedia Britannica, Adopting Collaborative Approach, Whispers Uncle

Last week, the ven­er­a­ble Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca gave into the pres­sure cre­at­ed by Wikipedia when it announced that it is tri­alling a new ser­vice (see the beta site here) that will let the pub­lic write and edit arti­cles. The dif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, is that Bri­tan­ni­ca’s mod­el won’t be demo­c­ra­t­ic (not all can par­tic­i­pate) and its edi­to­r­i­al staff will enforce high­er stan­dards. Or, as the announce­ment put it, “we will wel­come and facil­i­tate the increased par­tic­i­pa­tion of our con­trib­u­tors, schol­ars, and reg­u­lar users, but we will con­tin­ue to accept all respon­si­bil­i­ty of what we write under our name. We are not abdi­cat­ing our respon­si­bil­i­ty as pub­lish­ers or bury­ing it under the now-fash­ion­able wis­dom of the crowds.”

This exper­i­ment with col­lab­o­ra­tive author­ing may — or may not — yield a bet­ter ency­clo­pe­dia (although some experts have ques­tioned whether the gen­er­al Bri­tan­ni­ca mod­el has any inher­ent advan­tages). It’s hard to know how things will turn out. But what’s more read­i­ly clear is the speed with which the 240 year-old Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca got out­flanked by Wikipedia, born just sev­en years ago. We have seen this sce­nario played out over and over again. But it nev­er ceas­es to amaze. The tra­di­tion­al insti­tu­tions, just when they seem as per­ma­nent as things can get, sud­den­ly get upend­ed. And, they don’t see it com­ing. Caught flat­foot­ed, they try to adapt, usu­al­ly by adopt­ing the meth­ods used by their com­peti­tor. But it’s most­ly too late, and the real game is over.

Bri­tan­ni­ca may stick around. But will this gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren — or the next — grow up think­ing of Bri­tan­ni­ca as the default research resource? A ques­tion that I’ll leave to you to answer.

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