5/03/2008

Britannica for free

The Britannica Encyclopedia recently started handing out free, one-year subscriptions to select online 'publishers' (meaning journalists and bloggers) who were required to submit details of their website or blog as part of the application process. That meant if your blog solely consisted of photographs of Britney's cleavage or an introspective analysis of your growing telepathic commmunion with the cockroaches living under your sink, the chances were you weren't going to get it. Fortunately, being a science fiction writer means you do get it, after a three or four day wait to find out if you make the grade.

Not only that, once you're signed up you can place widgets on your page that not only display a piece of information presumably pertinent to your blog entry, but that also links to the full Britannica article without the need for the casual blog-reader to sign up to it themselves. The same is true for straightforward hypertext links like the one in the next paragraph; click on it and you get the full article - but only that article. But what really matters is I now have full access to Britannica for a year, and that means I can do more research (when I'm not, you know, making stuff up, which is most of the time).

I couldn't help but compare two articles on the same subject, one in Britannica, and one in Wikipedia, on the Chinese god-emperor Fuxi (or Fu Xi, or Fu Hsi); the Britannica info is relatively sparse, but the Wikipedia article is highly detailed. Although it's also quite telling the depth to which the Wikipedia article goes into cinematic representations of Fuxi in a variety of Chinese fantasy films (The reason I'm checking such things is I'm naming two planets after Fuxi and his sister/wife Nuwa. History is apparently unclear on exactly which she was).

On an initial glance, I'd say the Wikipedia article is actually a lot more useful because of the depth it goes into by comparison to the Britannica article. I've heard people complain about the supposed inaccuracy of Wikipedia articles, but those same people never seem to have heard of a little thing called cross-checking.

If you need to make sure your facts are right, check at least two different sources of the same information and see what each says. That's where the value of a free Britannica subscription comes in - although it's own accuracy has been questioned or challenged, and being printed on paper is not in itself an automatic guarantee of such.

My usual research policy is to start with Wikipedia, then either google specific related terms or follow-through some of the online references often found on a Wikipedia page. Sometimes, of course, a trip to a physical library is required, but given I'm living in Asia for the moment, my research is by necessity almost entirely online. Good research, to my mind, means finding not only the commonalities in two sources of information on the same subject, but also gleaning minor but illuminating details to be found only in one or the other.

Now my routine is: check Wikipedia, check what Britannica says by comparison, see what a google search kicks up, ask friends and acquaintances for help if I need any more info related to their particular disciplines (amongst whom I count physicists, game programmers, artificial intelligence researchers, astronomers and those well versed in Babylonian mythology), and work on from there.
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