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Encyclopaedia Britannica 2010 Ultimate Edition DVD review


The quality of Britannica's multimedia elements is mixed, but you can depend on the articles.

Review Date: 4 Jan 2010

Price when reviewed: £40


Reviewed By: Karl Wright

Our Rating 4 stars out of 5

Poor old Britannica. For years it was slugging it out with upstart encyclopaedia Microsoft Encarta. Now Encarta is no more but Britannica has little reason to celebrate, as it has a new and even more formidable competitor: Wikipedia. The free online behemoth contains over three million unique articles, compared with 'only' 75,000 in the £40 Britannica.

Britannica had an edge over Encarta in that its articles tended to be longer and weightier. The same isn't always true with Wikipedia, though. On the 1054 schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example, Britannica manages 474 words compared with Wikipedia's 8,122. For photosynthesis, on the other hand, Wikipedia's entry is 5,027 words long compared with Britannica's 9,205 words.

Word count is no guide to quality, though, and 9,000 words of misinformation won't help anyone. Wikipedia is often caught up in heated debates. Take, for instance, the article on Sinn Fein. In the section on the 1969-70 split in the republican movement, you'll find a note warning that the neutrality of the section is under dispute. The fact that Wikipedia has such warnings and a system to deal with them is no bad thing, but if Wikipedia is your main source of information and there's an ongoing problem with the relevant article, you're stuck and will need to refer to other, less contentious sources.

Each of Britannica's articles is written by a leading academic in the relevant field. We're not suggesting that academics don't have their own biases, but awareness of bias and the process of professional peer review practiced by reputable publications such as Britannica helps to stop unbalanced or inaccurate articles making it into the public domain. There's no such guarantee with Wikipedia. Often its articles are absolutely fine, particularly those on popular topics in which any error is likely to cause howls of outrage. But for more obscure topics, errors can go uncorrected for some time - not what your kids need when researching a crucial homework assignment. For this reason, many of the academics we spoke to during the research for this review don't encourage their students to cite Wikipedia as a source.

While Wikipedia may have more than three million articles, it's worth bearing in mind that many of them are concerned with trivia. For instance, not only does Justin Timberlake have his own article, his song 'SexyBack' gets an astounding 2,400 words of its own. Britannica doesn't have an entry for Justin Timberlake, which fact alone is almost worth an extra star.

Also in Britannica's favour is the fact that it includes three separate products: Encyclopaedia Britannica Library, Britannica Student Library and Britannica Elementary Library. This is handy for parents who want age-appropriate information for their kids. Britannica also comes with a range of learning games and multimedia content (ranging in quality from excellent to almost embarrassing), a superb dictionary and an atlas.

Any academic will tell you that researching a topic from a single source is very poor practice. If you're looking for another, more objective and professional source of information to complement internet based research, Britannica fits the bill neatly.

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