A turn up for the books

Weighty volumes are on their way out. Even CD-Roms are old hat. So why has the biggest online encyclopedia decided to produce a paper version? Danny Bradbury investigates
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The Independent Online

People often talk about "open source" in the context of software development; but it's easy to forget that software is only one type of intellectual property. Jimmy Wales hasn't forgotten, though. He's taken the open-source concept and applied it to something else completely: online encyclopedia content. And now, he plans to fight the traditional encyclopedia vendors on their own turf, with a print version of the free text.

People often talk about "open source" in the context of software development; but it's easy to forget that software is only one type of intellectual property. Jimmy Wales hasn't forgotten, though. He's taken the open-source concept and applied it to something else completely: online encyclopedia content. And now, he plans to fight the traditional encyclopedia vendors on their own turf, with a print version of the free text.

Wales, a former futures and options trader from Chicago, started the Wikipedia open-source encyclopedia at wikipedia. com three years ago. Any self-styled expert in a subject can write or edit an article about anything to join the 200,000 others in the Wikipedia, as long as they give the intellectual property to the project. "What we aim for is nothing more or less than the perfection of the traditional encyclopedia concept," Wales says. "As we worked on the project we always viewed Encyclopaedia Britannica as the gold standard, and that is exactly where we want to be."

That may be harder than it sounds. The two encyclopedias sit on opposite sides of the cultural fence in terms of editorial production. Although Encylopaedia Britannica does publish updates to its web site every four to six weeks, it normally takes an average of six months for an article to progress from initial concept to final proof. An advisory panel of experts around the world tells a team of editors what they should be covering, and recommends contributors. When an article has been decided upon, commissioning and writing takes three months. The submitted article is edited and sent to an independent group of fact-checkers, explains senior vice-president and editor Dale Hoiberg; every word in the article is approved before it progresses to the copy editing team and passed on to the author for review. Finally, it is reviewed by both a senior editor and then the executive editor.

The structured, top-down approach adopted by Encyclopaedia Britannica over its 236-year life sits in stark contrast to the chaotic process underpinning the three-year-old Wikipedia. The project depends on volunteers who can either submit content anonymously or sign up for a user ID (which gives them the chance to gain a reputation in the community). To manage the editing process, Wales uses the Wiki, a relatively new category of online software enabling anyone to submit or edit a document online simply by clicking and typing, without any programming experience.

For accuracy, Wikipedia relies on volume rather than editorial hierarchy. There is no need for user authorisation, meaning that any article can be edited or extended by anyone else. The idea is that the accuracy of an article will increase as more people revise it. Inappropriate or incorrect content is normally edited out very quickly, says Wales, and the community has introduced methods to strip out bias. "We have a concept called neutral point of view, in which even people with divergent opinions on a subject can at least agree to a statement of the problem," he says. A single article may be edited by more than 20 people in a day, meaning he has to rely heavily on the community's ability to act responsibly.

With this chaotic production process and the lack of Encyclopaedia Britannica's top-level planning, it's perhaps not surprising that the quality of Wikipedia's content is variable. "There are areas where their articles are better than ours and ours are pretty bad," Wales admits. But he says Wiki- pedia covers some areas more effectively.

Wales must have faith because he is planning Wikipedia 1.0, a "frozen" subset of the project's content that he hopes to release later in the year. This will contain articles that have been flagged as reliable by a committee of experts, and hints at the introduction of a loose hierarchy into the Wikipedia community.

You might think that an organisation with its roots in digital content would sneer at the idea of a printed publication, with its associated production costs and inefficiencies. But Wales wants to put the 1.0 version into print within six months of its release.

Ideally, he hopes a spin-off online project started last July, called Wikibooks, will also make it into print. The project, owned by the same Wikimedia Foundation (wikimediafoundation. org/) that governs Wikipedia - alongside other projects such as the Wiktionary online dictionary and Wikiquote quotation reference - provides free online text- books for students. "There's a lot of feeling that textbooks are just too expensive. We offer a radically different cost model because of our cost of production," Wales says.

Encyclopaedia Britannica is putting on a brave face. Hoiberg points to its brand name, backed by the top-down editorial process, as its protection against upstarts such as Wikipedia. But the company has faced challenges in the past few years as it has made the transition from a print-only publication to a hybrid print/digital model. From a peak of $650m (£360m) in 1990, sales have dropped dramatically: the company currently sells 25,000 of its English-language multi-volume encyclopedia products, costing a maximum of $1,395 (£775) annually. (It also has 10 foreign-language versions, and some other annual publications.) When the company first introduced its Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-Rom in 1995, it cost hundreds of dollars. It has had to reduce the cost drastically, and today it gives it away free with the printed version in addition to selling via retail channels.

Britannica's CD-Rom also faces increasing competition from Encarta, the Microsoft subsidiary that produces software linked to an online subscription for regular updates. For Encarta, having a parent company that more or less owns the desktop operating system market puts it in a powerful position. What's more, Encarta has the luxury that its product has never been saddled with a print form. "If we did a print version of Encarta, we'd have to sell that multi-volume version for upwards of $1,000," says editorial director Gary Alt (who used to work for Britannica). "You can buy a PC bundled with the software for that price."

It's no wonder that the move away from print to CD-Rom and online subscriptions drove Britannica to shut down its door-to-door sales force in 1996. Yet while Britannica's president Jorge Cauz says that online revenues are increasing, on average its 200,000 online subscriptions only make up a third of the company's revenue, 10 years after it launched on the web. The reason is simple. Both Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encarta are threatened by the wealth of free information on the internet. Alt and Hoiberg both argue that generic internet information cannot always be trusted (Britannica's website search feature is labelled "Results You Can Trust") and is not subject to the same rigorous editing.

But it is here that Wikipedia represents the greatest threat, because by relying on enthusiasts, it sits between two spheres: the dubious world of internet searches, and the highly trusted encyclopedias. Wales hopes the quality of his offering is high enough to make it a viable alternative.

But he has his own challenges, not least of which is that providing free information doesn't pay the bills. He relies on fundraising drives, combined with free content production, to help fuel the growth of Wikipedia. The last fundraiser bought in $50,000. "We don't have one," he says of his business model. As he moves into print, he hopes to produce the publications at cost and to tap charitable foundations for any shortfall.

For a post-modern production model that relies on mass cooperation, such disorganisation could be said to go with the territory. But Wikipedia's collective achievement over the past three years is hard to ignore. As the organisation pushes forward, the traditional encyclopedia vendors - even those relying heavily on digital media - have much to worry about.

www.wikipedia.com; www.encarta.com; www.britannica.com

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