With regard to Wikipedia, many people ask about the quality of the content, whether one can trust the information, how reliable the whole thing is. We then explain about our procedures, and yes, amazingly they work.
But – how about the quality of earlier, ‘traditional’ encyclopedias? It is not a tit-for-tat-response if the question is returned to them.
In the middle ages, quality meant that the writer of an encyclopedia was a faithful compiler of already existing texts. The encyclopedias were more like anthologies. When in early renaissance the person of an author received a different status then also the requirements for a good encyclopedia started slowly to shift.
Publishing an encyclopedia was and is not only a scientific or educational, but above all a commercial enterprise. Of course, a thorough and newly written, up-to-date text costs a lot of work of a skilled lexicographer.
In his Myth of the Britannica, Harvey Einbinder named a lot of examples for low quality but also some reasons. The 1963 edition of EB told anecdotes about the youth of Francisco de Goya, about his involvement in street gangs and a trip to Rome. Einbinder: ‘No documentary evidence exists describing this trip, but the idea that Goya joined a group of bull-fighters fits the popular image of the artist.’ (S. 122/123.)
Britannica showed a lot of dubious or dated articles because it is difficult to write a good article on a complicated subject; copyediting costs time and time is money. Taking over an article from a previous edition is cheaper than writing it new. And this given the fact that Britannica authors have not been paid well.
Britannica claimed in 1960 that, from 1950 on, 34 million words in 49,000 articles had been revised. But that does that mean? With in total 38 million words in 42,000 articles, does that mean that several articles had been altered several times, Einbinder asked. (S. 265.) ‘Apparently’ this is how it went: If someone made some minor changes in an article then all words of the article were counted as ‘revised’. (S. 279/280.)
Maybe someone likes to calculate how many million words are ‘revised’ in English Wikipedia every day?