"Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

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"Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

SJ-5
Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.


==================================================

>> Because you're a valued Britannica customer, I'm writing to you today about
a subject that has received widespread news coverage - it is a subject
that's being taken very seriously by all of us at Encyclopædia Britannica
and one on which we have worked extensively with our editors, contributors,
and advisors for many weeks.

In one of its recent issues, the science journal Nature published an article
that claimed to compare the accuracy of the online Encyclopædia Britannica
with Wikipedia, the Internet database that allows anyone, regardless of
knowledge or qualifications, to write and edit articles on any subject.
Wikipedia had recently received attention for its alleged inaccuracies, but
Nature's article claimed that Britannica's science coverage was only
slightly more accurate than Wikipedia's.

Arriving amid the revelations of vandalism and errors in Wikipedia, such a
finding was, not surprisingly, big news. Perhaps you even saw the story
yourself. It's been reported around the world.

Those reports were wrong, however, because Nature's research was invalid. As
our editors and scholarly advisers have discovered by reviewing the research
in depth, almost everything about the Nature's investigation was wrong and
misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not
inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not
even in the Encyclopædia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and
its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.

Since educators and librarians have been among Britannica's closest
colleagues for many years, I would like to address you personally with an
explanation of our findings and tell you the truth about the Nature study.

Almost everything Nature did showed carelessness and indifference to basic
research standards. Their numerous errors and spurious procedures included
the following:

*       Rearranging, reediting, and excerpting Britannica articles. Several
of the "articles" Nature sent its outside reviewers were only sections of,
or excerpts from Britannica entries. Some were cut and pasted together from
more than one Britannica article. As a result, Britannica's coverage of
certain subjects was represented in the study by texts that our editors
never created, approved or even saw.
*       Mistakenly identifying inaccuracies. The journal claimed to have
found dozens of inaccuracies in Britannica that didn't exist.
*       Reviewing the wrong texts. They reviewed a number of texts that were
not even in the encyclopedia.
*       Failing to check facts. Nature falsely attributed inaccuracies to
Britannica based on statements from its reviewers that were themselves
inaccurate and which Nature's editors failed to verify.
*       Misrepresenting its findings. Even according to Nature's own
figures, (which grossly exaggerated the number of inaccuracies in
Britannica) Wikipedia had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica. Yet the
headline of the journal's report concealed this fact and implied something
very different.

Britannica also made repeated attempts to obtain from Nature the original
data on which the study's conclusions were based. We invited Nature's
editors and management to meet with us to discuss our analysis, but they
declined.

The Nature study was thoroughly wrong and represented an unfair affront to
Britannica's reputation.

Britannica practices the kind of sound scholarship and rigorous editorial
work that few organizations even attempt. This is vital in the age of the
Internet, when there is so much inappropriate material available. Today,
having sources like Britannica is more important than ever, with content
that is reliable, tailored to the age of the user, correlated to curriculum,
and safe for everyone.

Whatever may have prompted Nature to do such careless and sloppy research,
it's now time for them to uphold their commitment to good science and
retract the study immediately. We have urged them strongly to do so.

We have prepared a detailed report that describes Britannica's thorough
(7,000 words) analysis of the Nature study. I invite you to download it from
our Web site at www.eb.com.

==================================================
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

geni
On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.

Where?

--
geni
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Mathias Schindler-2
In reply to this post by SJ-5
On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.

This is pretty important and from all I've read so far, one could be
in the situation to support Britannicas call to Nature to retract the
story and make a better one.

Mathias
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Mathias Schindler-2
In reply to this post by geni
On 3/22/06, geni <[hidden email]> wrote:
> On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> > Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> > customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> > accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> > review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> > and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.
>
> Where?


http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica ReviewTackles Nature Methods

Charles Matthews
In reply to this post by Mathias Schindler-2
 "Mathias Schindler"  wrote

> This is pretty important and from all I've read so far, one could be
> in the situation to support Britannicas call to Nature to retract the
> story and make a better one.

Yes, it's interesting.  I thought at the time of the Nature article that the
main point was not that Wikipedia did well, but that B did badly.

Anyway, I'm sure we want to console  the EB folks.  After all, we're all in
the same business.  We should send them some pleasant message, sympathising
with the unpleasant, picky results of that survey.  Something short and to
the point, like the words "watch" and "Swiss".

Charles


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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Mathias Schindler-2
In reply to this post by SJ-5
On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.

Those of you who are interested in the topic should come to
#wikipedia-britannica on Freenode IRC.

We might be able to form an response to this which could be productive.

Mathias
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Kirill Lokshin
In reply to this post by Mathias Schindler-2
On 3/22/06, Mathias Schindler <[hidden email]> wrote:

> On 3/22/06, geni <[hidden email]> wrote:
> > On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> > > Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> > > customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> > > accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> > > review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> > > and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.
> >
> > Where?
>
>
> http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf

Heh, some of the Britannica responses are quite amusing:

"Article: Pheromone
Reviewer comment: One might get the impression that a pheromone is a
substance, while it usually consists of several in a blend.
Britannica response: We do not accept this criticism. This article
does not even discuss the composition of pheromones."

What exactly is the article supposed to discuss, then?

Kirill Lokshin
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Steve Bennett-4
In reply to this post by SJ-5
On 3/22/06, SJ <[hidden email]> wrote:
> Those reports were wrong, however, because Nature's research was invalid. As
> our editors and scholarly advisers have discovered by reviewing the research
> in depth, almost everything about the Nature's investigation was wrong and
> misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not
> inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not
> even in the Encyclopædia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and
> its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.

I'm surprised how vague this is. Later he complains that the source
data is not available. But here he just refers to "dozens of
inaccuracies"...hmm.

> *       Rearranging, reediting, and excerpting Britannica articles. Several
> of the "articles" Nature sent its outside reviewers were only sections of,
> or excerpts from Britannica entries. Some were cut and pasted together from
> more than one Britannica article. As a result, Britannica's coverage of
> certain subjects was represented in the study by texts that our editors
> never created, approved or even saw.

That seems like a lot of hot air over a small issue. Claiming that
their editors "never created, approved or even saw" the particular
compilation is really piling on strong words to make an impact.
Whereas what they're actually denying is much weaker. Kind of like "I
did *not* have sexual relations with that woman..."

> *       Mistakenly identifying inaccuracies. The journal claimed to have
> found dozens of inaccuracies in Britannica that didn't exist.

Well, I've had a look at some of their claimed inaccurate inaccuracies
and I'm not that sure. It's very much "No it's not / Yes it is".

> *       Reviewing the wrong texts. They reviewed a number of texts that were
> not even in the encyclopedia.

Do they get more specific than this? "A number" probably turns out to
be 3. Or existed in some previous version of the encyclopaedia that
was outdated 4 days before the survey. I'm suspicious.

> *       Failing to check facts. Nature falsely attributed inaccuracies to
> Britannica based on statements from its reviewers that were themselves
> inaccurate and which Nature's editors failed to verify.

Well, details, please.

> *       Misrepresenting its findings. Even according to Nature's own
> figures, (which grossly exaggerated the number of inaccuracies in
> Britannica) Wikipedia had a third more inaccuracies than Britannica. Yet the
> headline of the journal's report concealed this fact and implied something
> very different.

I vaguely recall they had some sort of weird logarithmic scale, so I
would tend to agree with this one. But actually...wasn't the final
number something like "4 errors per article compared to 3 errors per
article"? Whether 33% more is a lot or not is purely subjective. I
would definitely say it's the same ballpark.

> Britannica also made repeated attempts to obtain from Nature the original
> data on which the study's conclusions were based. We invited Nature's
> editors and management to meet with us to discuss our analysis, but they
> declined.

If true, that's very poor on Nature's part.

> Whatever may have prompted Nature to do such careless and sloppy research,
> it's now time for them to uphold their commitment to good science and
> retract the study immediately. We have urged them strongly to do so.

Uh, a commitment to good science would be publishing the data and
their method so that people can attempt to reproduce it. I tend to
agree that Nature's method was optimistic. Surely more than one
reviewer for each article shoul have been appointed...even better
would have been an open forum where many experts could pick through
each article and argue amongst themselves.

> We have prepared a detailed report that describes Britannica's thorough
> (7,000 words) analysis of the Nature study. I invite you to download it from
> our Web site at www.eb.com.

A lot of it seems to be "We reject this criticism. We have asked our
adviser, and he says we're right." Not exactly convincing stuff.
Particularly when they complain that the original study failed to cite
sources - and with few exceptions, the EB rebuttal doesn't either.

Example: "Britannica response: We do not accept these criticisms
(which are really just one criticism, not two). We have published a
revision of this article that retains the emphasis on supersaturation
rather than the transitional stage of saturation."

By this standard, Wikipedia should reply to nature and say "Thanks for
the criticisms. Our community rejects them. We stand by our original
version". However, we didn't - as I understand, we actually took the
criticisms on board and worked with them. Which kind of demonstrates
the real strength in Wikipedia. Instead of simply "not accepting"
every criticism (as EB does 22 times in their response) to protect our
good name, we, without ego, simply make it better.

I also sort of feel that as an attempted model of good science or
whatever, EB should not be attacking the entire Nature study as
totally "without merit".

Sorry I can't join the IRC chat.

Steve
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Philip Welch
In reply to this post by SJ-5
On Mar 22, 2006, at 7:41 AM, SJ wrote:

> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.

This confirms it. We have reached GandhiCon 3:

1. First they ignore you
2. Then they laugh at you
3. Then they fight you
4. And then you win.

--
Philip L. Welch
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Philwelch



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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

MacGyverMagic/Mgm
In reply to this post by SJ-5
It could hardly be "totally without merit". Most of those disputed
facts are really "he said, she said" situation where not even the
experts agree. Stubbornly sticking to your guns and using loaded words
without going into details as to where specific details come from is
-- well let's not use mean words.

Basically what they're saying is that Nature messed up and that
Wikipedia has more errors than Nature claimed. "internet database
anyone, without specific qualifications can edit" is a jab at
Wikipedia's open community" for no other reason than making themselves
look good.

I'm having a hard time with the idea of sending them a "nice" message.

Mgm
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Steve Bennett-4
In reply to this post by Philip Welch
On 3/22/06, Philip Welch <[hidden email]> wrote:
> This confirms it. We have reached GandhiCon 3:

Nice term.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/GandhiCon

Steve
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Steve Summit
In reply to this post by MacGyverMagic/Mgm
MacGyverMagic wrote:
> "internet database anyone, without specific qualifications can edit"
> is a jab...

Notice how they carefully don't refer to WP as an "encyclopedia"
at all.

> I'm having a hard time with the idea of sending them a "nice" message.

But that's the point.  The nastier someone is, the more
devastating it can be to be nice in return.
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica ReviewTackles Nature Methods

Charles Matthews
In reply to this post by Steve Bennett-4
 "Steve Bennett" wrote

>> Britannica also made repeated attempts to obtain from Nature the original
> data on which the study's conclusions were based. We invited Nature's
>> editors and management to meet with us to discuss our analysis, but they
>> declined.

>If true, that's very poor on Nature's part.

Well, I have read the detailed analyses of errors, with the names of the
reviewers, in a document a link to which was posted to this list.  I wonder
what more they wanted.

There's an odd idea in the EB document.  They had 'peer review', except that
of course it wasn't: those reviewing would for the most part be of greater
academic distinction than those writing the articles.  Now they want to
second-guess all that.  But not by getting a 'better' peer review done.
More by meeting with Nature, and trying for retractions.

Rather short-sighted, in fact, in that alienating Nature probably is more
likely to make it repeat the exercise.

Charles


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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Keith Old
In reply to this post by Steve Summit
 On 3/23/06, Steve Summit <[hidden email]> wrote:

> >
> > MacGyverMagic wrote:
> > > "internet database anyone, without specific qualifications can edit"
> > > is a jab...
> >
> > Notice how they carefully don't refer to WP as an "encyclopedia"
> > at all.
> >
> > > I'm having a hard time with the idea of sending them a "nice" message.
> >
> > But that's the point.  The nastier someone is, the more
> > devastating it can be to be nice in return.
> > _______________________________________________
> > WikiEN-l mailing list
> > [hidden email]
> > To unsubscribe from this mailing list, visit:
> > http://mail.wikipedia.org/mailman/listinfo/wikien-l
> >
>  Folks,

Britannica must be struggling. I recently got a letter offering me a free
Britannica CD-ROM (basic edition) if I subscribed. I don't think that is a
good sign.

Regards


Keith Old
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Guy Chapman aka JzG
On Thu, 23 Mar 2006 04:52:09 +1100, you wrote:

>Britannica must be struggling. I recently got a letter offering me a free
>Britannica CD-ROM (basic edition) if I subscribed. I don't think that is a
>good sign.

I thought that was a pretty old offer?  I seem to recall something
similar at least five years back.  Could be wrong, of course.

I think these days anybody selling access to information is
struggling.  Too much of it is free.
Guy (JzG)
--
http://www.chapmancentral.co.uk
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JzG

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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

geni
On 3/22/06, Guy Chapman aka JzG <[hidden email]> wrote:

> On Thu, 23 Mar 2006 04:52:09 +1100, you wrote:
>
> >Britannica must be struggling. I recently got a letter offering me a free
> >Britannica CD-ROM (basic edition) if I subscribed. I don't think that is a
> >good sign.
>
> I thought that was a pretty old offer?  I seem to recall something
> similar at least five years back.  Could be wrong, of course.
>
> I think these days anybody selling access to information is
> struggling.  Too much of it is free.
> Guy (JzG)

Journals appear to be doing ok.

--
geni
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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Nick Boalch
In reply to this post by SJ-5
SJ wrote:
> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.

It might be interesting to invite Nature to do a new comparison -- this
time of our response to their article [1] with Britannica's [2]...

Cheers,

N.

[1]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:External_peer_review/Nature_December_2005/Errors
[2] http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf

--
Nicholas Boalch
School of Modern Languages & Cultures       Tel: +44 (0) 191 334 3456
University of Durham                        Fax: +44 (0) 191 334 3421
New Elvet, Durham DH1 3JT, UK               WWW: http://nick.frejol.org/

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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica ReviewTackles Nature Methods

Charles Matthews
In reply to this post by Guy Chapman aka JzG
> I think these days anybody selling access to information is
> struggling.  Too much of it is free.

> Guy (JzG)

Indeed, the fun part is compiling the encyclopedia.  The unfun part is the
sales side.  We get that right.

Charles


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Re: "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica ReviewTackles Nature Methods

Steve Bennett-4
In reply to this post by Charles Matthews
On 3/22/06, charles matthews <[hidden email]> wrote:
> Well, I have read the detailed analyses of errors, with the names of the
> reviewers, in a document a link to which was posted to this list.  I wonder
> what more they wanted.

They wanted access to the actual documents constructed by Nature, on
which it based its review. Apparently, Nature cobbled together bits
from various different articles to produce "comparable" articles.
Wanting access to those new documents seems reasonable to me.

> There's an odd idea in the EB document.  They had 'peer review', except that
> of course it wasn't: those reviewing would for the most part be of greater
> academic distinction than those writing the articles.  Now they want to
> second-guess all that.  But not by getting a 'better' peer review done.
> More by meeting with Nature, and trying for retractions.

Yes, I don't believe that scientific studies are generally
"retracted". If they were really science-friendly, they would be
asking someone else to repeat the experiment, or at the least review
it. Rather than simply attacking it themselves and asking nicely for
it to be buried under the carpet.

> Rather short-sighted, in fact, in that alienating Nature probably is more
> likely to make it repeat the exercise.

Yes. "We love nature. That's why we're suing the World Nature Fund..."

Steve
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Re: [Wikipedia-l] "Fatally Flawed" -- Internal Britannica Review Tackles Nature Methods

Joseph Reagle
In reply to this post by SJ-5
On Wednesday 22 March 2006 10:41, SJ wrote:
> Below is a letter that Britannica sent out today to some of its
> customers, in response to the December Nature article comparing the
> accuracy of articles in Wikipedia and Britannica.  A more detailed
> review of the Nature study, including responses to each alleged error
> and omission, is linked from the front page of www.eb.com.

Interestingly, while I agree the study was very limited, all of the
methodological concerns Encyclopaedia Britannica raises could have also
affected the analysis of Wikipedia. In any case, the import of this
response is it took them more time to send a response to some of their
customers about the study than it took for all of the errors identified to
be corrected in the Wikipedia!
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