The recent announcement that after 244 years the Encyclopedia Britannica would no longer be issuing a print edition surprised few. Tim Berners-Lee turned out to be the person who dealt the lethal blow to this august literary institution, as the availability of nearly infinite free information on the internet caused Britannica’s income to drop to 20% of its pre-web total within a couple of years of widespread net access. The conversion of Britannica to a web-only work is pointing the way to the future of reference and how competition can launch a new golden age of written information… this time online.
Baby Boomer Status Symbol
In the heyday of the Encyclopedia, it served not only as a reference work but as a prominently displayed status symbol in baby boomer homes. The printed 40 million words were rated far higher on the status scale than two Buicks in the driveway and a pool in the backyard, as the haughty volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica demonstrated to one and all that the family was committed to the highest educational standards for their children. Just as Britannica represented the primary “go to” reference compendium for an earlier generation, Wikipedia now occupies the top spot, with over 400 million different people accessing its pages every year. While Britannica employed a squadron of editors to ensure that the most minute statements were fact-checked, Wikipedia is instantaneously edited by anyone with an internet connection, leading to howlers such as:
- Miley Cyrus, Sergey Brin, Paul Reiser and Sinbad are all dead
- British PM Tony Blair had photos of Hitler on his wall at Number 10
- Pro Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is an alcoholic junkie wife beater
- Plato was an ancient Hawaiian surfer
- Italians drink children’s blood
Web Readers Balk at $10/Page
Although these were all later corrected, it leads to questions as to why Wikipedia allows instant entries without pre-moderation. Just as you will have no problem finding websites that advocate eating copious amounts of garlic to cause terminal cancers to go into total remission, you will also find established and impeccably accurate sources of information such as WebMD. Google Scholar is an indispensable research tool to access a galaxy of peer-reviewed published scientific papers. However, the primary problem with these online science journals is that only brief abstracts are generally available for free, with the full articles costing $30 to $90. As most web readers will balk at paying about $10 per page to read an article, most in-depth net scientific study is being conducted by institutional researchers.
Authoritative, Accurate & Available
The paradigm of scientific journal publishing was established at the time when huge paper volumes needed to be printed and shipped to libraries on a monthly basis, leading to the price of the better journals spiraling to over $5,000 per year. Although the necessary peer-review process is an expensive one, there is no doubt that the majority of the stratospheric costs were in tangible printing and shipping costs. In direct competition to this extremely restrictive model, the web’s Arxiv.com is swiftly becoming the publisher of choice for many leading researchers. Currently offering three-quarters of a million full-text papers at absolutely no cost, Arxiv is the example of the Three As of the new age of reference information: Authoritative, Accurate & Available.
Vigorous Defense of Accuracy
It won’t take much longer for the free online model to supersede the onerous and costly print journal standard, but it cannot be accomplished without a thorough, vigorous and ceaseless defense of accuracy and verifiability. “It’s just for the web” is not an excuse to apply sloppy editorial practices. In order for any site to outcompete other purveyors of information, it must become a beacon of rigorous veracity.
In a tellingly ironic twist, the Wired Epicenter article on the death of the Britannica print edition had to run a correction to reverse its original statement that the company had gone bankrupt in 1996 when it had instead been sold. If that does not convince you of the necessity to transplant the meticulous editing standards of the print age to the electronic one.. nothing ever may!