Digital content for free! (semi-free) (or something)

So, from Encyclopedia Britannica there’s now Webshare – making it easy for “web publishers” (which means – bloggers?) to access premium encyclopedia content, and to share that content with users.  From the project site:

a limited program that enables people who regularly publish content on the Internet—bloggers, webmasters, and writers for the Web—to obtain free subscriptions to Britannica Online, which includes the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and thousands of additional articles as well as access to other reference databases, links to valuable Web sites selected by our editors, and more.

It looks like I can search the online site for free, and I can use links or widgets to share the information I find with others – even if that information would normally have a price tag.  Now, one reason for this is clear – as Kathryn Greenhill has already explained – Britannica wants more links because more links = more better in a Google-dominated world.

And clearly, Britannica needs to be more relevant – the realities of online writing are that you’ll pick what’s good and linkable over what’s great and not.  Jason Griffey at Pattern Recognition looks at Webshare in this light, and makes a strong argument that the project doesn’t go far enough down the open and sharing road.

So this is interesting, as a model for digital content sharing, but I’m also interested in how well the site  works as an online reference source.  And in particular as an online reference source that can support an process-based model of research, based on broad exploration.   A few years ago now – I think it was probably 2005 – we were revising a set of information literacy assignments that are embedded in OSU’s beginning composition course.  These assignments were, and are, intended to introduce just such a research model.

For a variety of reasons we decided that a lot of students needed to explore their topics in reference-type sources.  At the time, we had access to the online Britannica in my library and we thought “maybe we’ll send them to Wikipedia and to the published encyclopedia.”  After a few test searches using our students’ keywords we realized that this plan was doomed to fail.  The oddest and most specific searches were successful in Wikipedia, but even common terms like “biodiesel” were unsuccessful in Britannica.  More than that, the hypertext-rich articles in Wikipedia encouraged further and broader exploration, while the traditional entries in Britannica were clearly intended to stand alone.

I describe this whole process in more detail in a chapter in this book, and (with Sara Jameson) in this article, but the upshot is that we decided to send the students to Wikipedia alone, and we haven’t turned back from that plan.

So have things gotten better since 2005?

I searched on “biodiesel” which is my default sample search, which is a very popular argument paper topic among OSU undergraduates, and which yielded exactly no results in the online Britannica 3 years ago.  This time, we did a little better.  There seems to be a topic on biodiesel, but while it looks like there should be an associated article, the interface just churned and churned without loading one.  When it finally stopped, there was a notation indicating that biodiesel is a fuel, which isn’t much, but it is an improvement over last time.  There is also a note saying that this topic is “being discussed” on four external websites:  Biodieselnow, the National Biodiesel Board, Willie Nelson’s Biodiesel, and a biography of Rudolf Diesel.  There are also links to pages on Rudolf Diesel and Willie Nelson.

So – better, yes, but not especially good.  A student could do some exploration of this topic here, but there’s nothing to give them a sense of the discourse, to suggest entry points and keywords into that discourse – no article to help make them better searchers on the topic and only a limited range of places to look further.

And even beyond this, I’d like to extend Jason Griffey’s conclusion a bit –

In all, this is the right direction for Britannica to be going if they hope to ever be relevant in the 21st century, but they haven’t gone far enough. You need some serious added value at this point to compete.

I think his suggestions are spot-on, and I could see using Britannica for things as he describes it.  But for this particular assignment — even if all these suggestions came to pass I’m not sure any source created in a non-dynamic way could add the value I’m looking for.   As I’ve worked with students on this assignment, I’ve come to think that the very things that can make Wikipedia scary to some educators also make it an ideal resource to illustrate some of the important epistemological themes in academic writing:  the idea that knowledge is something constructed, or the idea that some problems are “wicked problems” with a whole lot of plausible solutions.

That’s a serious value-add for me that is only possible because of the community of people who co-create Wikipedia and because of the transparency inherent in their creation process.

2 thoughts on “Digital content for free! (semi-free) (or something)

  1. Huh. Yeah, that’s pretty much the same, isn’t it. I guess the snarky way of looking at it is that one thing they’re doing differently is get noticed. They’ve been off my radar for a while, but I’ve seen a zillion mentions of it this time around, and that wasn’t the case before. I think you’re on the money to point to the widgets — offering something more of value to the content creators they’re targeting than links in the hopes of getting some buzz and some use? That makes some sense to me. Especially given that links is something they can’t now nor will they ever do better than Wikipedia.

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