The Business of Encyclopedias

Published:December 14, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

A new article in Inside Higher Ed takes an in-depth look at the business of online encyclopedias, including Encyclopedia Virginia. Here’s a taste:

Size Matters

From a business standpoint, the most attractive aspect of Wikipedia might be the fact that unpaid volunteers create and edit most of the content. But to consumers, the site’s greatest draw, aside from being cost-free, is probably its breadth. The site has 14 million entries — 3 million in English — on everything from wave-particle duality to “Jon and Kate Plus 8.”

Achieving that sort of breadth while being free and expertly fact-checked is a daunting prospect. Most of the free encyclopedia projects that have come out of academe are limited by topic: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology and so on. Even Scholarpedia, whose name and tagline (“the peer-reviewed, open-access encyclopedia”) implies a broad scope, currently only publishes articles on a few specialized topics in science. Other free, online encyclopedias supported by universities, such as the Encyclopedia Virginia, the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, and the New Georgia Encyclopedia, limit themselves to a single state and focus mostly on history.

None have immediate plans to expand to anything approaching the breadth of Wikipedia or even traditional encyclopedias like Britannica. “This is tricky,” says Izhikevich, of Scholarpedia, “because the bigger the project — you have to find funding to manage editors, who will manage other editors, who will manage authors from all those disciplines… If you spread to more than one area, you spread thin.”