Research Redefined

Encyclopaedia Britannica adYou may have heard that Encyclopædia Britannica no longer sells a print edition. It now only offers a paid subscription to its online edition. Why pay a few bucks a month for information that’s available free? Ah, yes, Encyclopædia Britannica entices prospects by saying, “There’s no such thing as a bad question–but there are bad answers.”

Wikipedia vs. Encyclopædia Britannica

Resources like Wikipedia and infographics have been known to produce incorrect information. Besides, even if Wikipedia managed to produce perfect entries — it still has a human factor problem with volunteers writing and editing the entries.
I’ve seen an editor delete an entry due to bias rather than providing a solid reason that complies with Wikipedia guidelines. I’ve seen entries on controversial hijacked or rewritten with bias. And I’ve heard stories like David Henderson’s. He shares his thoughts and experience on Wikipedia.
I think we all agree Wikipedia has plenty of mistakes. But what about the stalwart Britannica? It’s not infallible according to a study.
Nature conducted a controversial study comparing the accuracy of the two sources. Using the average mistakes per article, the study found 2.92 mistakes for Encyclopædia Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia could make corrections instantly while a printed edition could not … that is, until now. I wonder how the two compare when using the online edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Nonetheless, we all need to know how to discern bad information from the good. That means learning how to find information, looking at the facts, and evaluating the source [pdf]. Many Wikipedia contributors include citations to support the facts presented. Using our experience and research skills, we can figure out whether those resources suffice.
Wikipedia doesn’t get much respect in academics. Some educators consider it invalid as a source. (Search for it and you’ll see.)

Trusted resources not always reliable

The Internet has changed how we obtain information. The information is out there, but we need to know how to dig through it to get what we need. Even reliable resources get it wrong.
For example, The University of Texas’ Energy Institute conducted a hydraulic fracturing study that included a look at the media and public perception of shale gas development. The study found that the tone of media coverage was “overwhelming negative.”
Here are the most interesting facts from the study:

  • “Less than 20% of newspaper articles on hydraulic fracturing mention scientific research related to the issue.
  • “25% of broadcast news stories examined made reference to scientific studies.
  • “33% of online news coverage mentioned scientific research on the issue.”

Newspaper articles. Broadcast news. Online news coverage. These are resources many people trust. Yet, these media outlets don’t often rely on scientific research when talking about shale development.
Side note. Here’s an infographic comparing the two. Accurate or not? I found the Nature study through Google, which happens to be one of the resources in the infographic. Do a search on the study and you’ll see plenty of results about its controversy.
What kind of impact does the Internet have on research? What if many researchers, journalists, and students rely on flawed data found on the Internet and reliable resources? How do we determine what’s reliable aside from talking to a primary source?

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