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Encyclopædia Britannica

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Encyclopædia Britannica
Title page of the Eleventh Edition
Eleventh Edition title page
Author(s) 4,411 named contributors; editorial staff
Country  United Kingdom (1768-1900)
 United States (1901-present)
Language English
Subject(s) General
Genre(s) Reference encyclopedia
Publisher Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Publication date 1768–present
Media type 32 volumes ( hardbound)
ISBN ISBN 1593392923
OCLC Number 71783328

The Encyclopædia Britannica is a general English-language encyclopaedia published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., a privately held company. The articles in the Britannica are aimed at educated adult readers, and written by a staff of about 100 full-time editors and over 4,000 expert contributors. It is widely perceived as the most scholarly of encyclopaedias.

The Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print. It was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland and quickly grew in popularity and size, with its third edition in 1801 reaching over 21 volumes. Its rising stature helped in recruiting eminent contributors, and the 9th edition (1875–1889) and the 11th edition (1911) are regarded as landmark encyclopaedias for scholarship and literary style. Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica gradually shortened and simplified its articles in order to broaden its North American market. In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt a "continuous revision" policy, in which the encyclopaedia is continually reprinted and every article is updated on a regular schedule.

The current 15th edition has a unique three-part structure: a 12-volume Micropædia of short articles (generally having fewer than 750 words), a 17-volume Macropædia of long articles (having from two to 310 pages) and a single Propædia volume intended to give a hierarchical outline of human knowledge. The Micropædia is meant for quick fact-checking and as a guide to the Macropædia; readers are advised to study the Propædia outline to understand a subject's context and to find other, more detailed articles. The size of the Britannica has remained roughly constant over the past 70 years, with about 40 million words on half a million topics. Although publication has been based in the United States since 1901, the Britannica has maintained its traditional British spelling.

Over the course of its history, the Britannica has had difficulty remaining profitable—a problem faced by many encyclopaedias. Some articles in certain earlier editions of the Britannica have been criticised for inaccuracy, bias or unqualified contributors. The accuracy in parts of the present edition have likewise been questioned, although such criticisms have been challenged by the Britannica's management. Despite these criticisms, the Britannica retains its reputation as a reliable research tool.


Ownership of the Britannica has changed many times, with past owners including the Scottish publisher A & C Black, Horace Everett Hooper, Sears Roebuck and William Benton. The present owner of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. is Jacqui Safra, a Swiss billionaire and actor. Recent advances in information technology and the rise of electronic encyclopedias such as Microsoft Encarta and Wikipedia have reduced the demand for print encyclopedias. To remain competitive, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has stressed the good reputation of the Britannica, reduced its price and production costs, and developed electronic versions on CD-ROM, DVD and the World Wide Web. Since the early 1930s, the company has also promoted spin-off reference works.


Title page of the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

The Britannica has been issued in 15 official editions, with multi-volume supplements to the 3rd and 5th editions (see the Table below). Strictly speaking, the 10th edition was only a supplement to the 9th edition, just as the 12th and 13th editions were supplements to the 11th edition. The 15th edition underwent a massive re-organisation in 1985, but the updated, current version is still known as the 15th edition.

Throughout its history, the Britannica has had two aims: to be an excellent reference book and to provide educational material for those who wish to study. In 1974, the 15th edition adopted a third goal: to systematise all of human knowledge. The history of the Britannica can be divided into five main eras, punctuated by major changes in management or re-organisation of the encyclopaedia.

First era

In the first era (1st–6th editions, 1768–1826), the Britannica was managed by its original founders, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, and by their friends and relations, such as Thomas Bonar, George Gleig and Archibald Constable. The Britannica was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh as the Encyclopædia Britannica, or, A dictionary of arts and sciences, compiled upon a new plan. It was conceived as a conservative reaction to the provocative French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (published 1751–1766), which in turn had been inspired by the earlier Chambers Cyclopaedia. The Britannica was primarily a Scottish enterprise, as symbolised by its thistle logo, the floral emblem of Scotland. The founding of the encyclopaedia is one of the most famous and enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment. In this era, the Britannica moved from being a three-volume set (1st edition) compiled by one young editor— William Smellie—to a 20-volume set written by numerous authorities. Although several other encyclopaedias competed with the Britannica, such as Rees's Cyclopaedia and Coleridge's Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, these competitors either went bankrupt or were left unfinished due to disagreements among their editors. By the close of this era, the Britannica had developed a network of illustrious contributors, primarily through personal friendships with the editors, most notably Constable and Gleig.

The middle 19th century editions of Encyclopædia Britannica included seminal research such as Thomas Young's article on Egypt, which included the translation of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone (pictured).

Second era

During the second era (7th–9th editions, 1827–1901), the Britannica was managed by the Edinburgh publishing firm, A & C Black. Although some contributors were again recruited through personal friendships of the chief editors, most notably Macvey Napier, others were attracted by the Britannica's ever-improving reputation. The contributors often came from other countries and included some of the world's most respected authorities in their fields. A general index of all articles was included for the first time in the 7th edition, a practice that was maintained until 1974. The first English-born editor-in-chief was Thomas Spencer Baynes, who oversaw the production of the famous 9th edition; dubbed the "Scholar's Edition", the 9th is often considered to be the most scholarly Britannica ever produced. However, by the close of the 19th century, the 9th edition was outdated and the Britannica faced significant financial difficulties.

Third era

In the third era (10th–14th editions, 1901–1973), the Britannica was managed by American businessmen, who introduced aggressive marketing practices, such as direct marketing and door-to-door sales, to increase profits. The American owners also gradually simplified the Britannica's articles, making them less scholarly but more intelligible to a mass market. The 10th edition was a rapidly produced supplement to the 9th edition, but the 11th edition is still praised for its excellence; its owner, Horace Hooper, lavished enormous effort on its perfection. When Hooper fell into financial difficulties, the Britannica was managed by Sears Roebuck for roughly 18 years (1920–1923, 1928–1943). In 1932, the vice-president of Sears, Elkan Harrison Powell, assumed the presidency of the Britannica; in 1936, he began the policy of continuous revision (still practiced today), in which every article is checked and possibly revised at least twice a decade. This was a major departure from earlier practice, in which the articles were not changed until a new edition was produced, at roughly 25-year intervals, with some articles being carried over unchanged from earlier editions. Powell aggressively developed new educational products that built upon the Britannica's reputation. In 1943, ownership passed from Sears Roebuck to William Benton, who managed the Britannica until his death in 1973. Benton also set up the Benton Foundation, which managed the Britannica until 1996. In 1968, near the end of this era, the Britannica celebrated its bicentennial.

U.S. advertisement for the 11th edition from the May 1913 issue of National Geographic Magazine

Fourth era

In the fourth era (15th edition, 1974–1994), the Britannica introduced its 15th edition, which was re-organised into three parts: the Micropædia, the Macropædia and the Propædia. Under the influence of Mortimer J. Adler (member of the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica since its inception in 1949, and its chair from 1974; director of editorial planning for the fifteenth edition of Britannica from 1965), the Britannica sought not only to be a good reference work and educational tool, but also to systematise all of human knowledge. The absence of a separate index and the grouping of articles into two parallel encyclopaedias (the Micro- and Macropædia) provoked a "firestorm of criticism" of the initial 15th edition. In response, the 15th edition was completely re-organised and indexed for a re-release in 1985. This second version of the 15th edition continues to be published and revised; the latest version is the 2007 print version. The official title of the 15th edition is the New Encyclopædia Britannica, although it has also been promoted as Britannica 3.

Fifth era

In the fifth era (1994–present), digital versions of the Britannica have been developed and released on optical media and online. In 1996, the Britannica was bought from the Benton Foundation by Jacqui Safra at well below its estimated value, owing to the company's financial difficulties. The Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. company split in 1999. One part retained the company name and developed the print version, and the other part, Inc., developed the digital versions. Since 2001, these two companies shared a single CEO, originally Ilan Yeshua, who has continued Powell's strategy of growing Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. by introducing new products branded with the Britannica name.


The Britannica was dedicated to the reigning British monarch from 1788 to 1901 and then, upon its sale to an American partnership, to both the British monarch and the President of the United States. Thus, the 11th edition is "dedicated by Permission to His Majesty George the Fifth, King of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Emperor of India, and to William Howard Taft, President of the United States of America." The order of the two dedications has changed with the relative power of the United States and Britain, and with the relative sales of the Britannica in these countries; the 1954 version of the 14th edition is "Dedicated by Permission to the Heads of the Two English-Speaking Peoples, Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second." Consistent with this tradition, the 2007 version of the current 15th edition is "dedicated by permission to the current President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II."

Critical and popular assessments


A copperplate by Andrew Bell from the 1st edition.

Since the 3rd edition, the Britannica has enjoyed a popular and critical reputation for general excellence. Various editions from the 3rd to the 9th were pirated for sale in the United States, beginning with Dobson's Encyclopædia. On the release of the 14th edition, Time magazine dubbed the Britannica the "Patriarch of the Library". In a related advertisement, naturalist William Beebe was quoted as saying that the Britannica was "beyond comparison because there is no competitor." References to the Britannica can be found throughout English literature, most notably in one of Arthur Conan Doyle's favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, " The Red-Headed League". The tale was highlighted by the Lord Mayor of London, Gilbert Inglefield, at the bicentennial of the Britannica.

The Britannica has a popular reputation for summarising all of human knowledge. To further their education, many have devoted themselves to reading the entire Britannica, taking anywhere from three to 22 years to do so. When Fat'h Ali became the Shah of Persia in 1797, he was given a complete set of the Britannica's 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include "Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica." Writer George Bernard Shaw claimed to have read the complete 9th edition—except for the science articles—and Richard Evelyn Byrd took the Britannica as reading material for his five-month stay at the South Pole in 1934, while Philip Beaver read it during a sailing expedition. More recently, A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, read the entire 2002 version of the 15th edition, describing his experiences in the well-received 2004 book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Only two people are known to have read two independent editions: the author C. S. Forester and Amos Urban Shirk, an American businessman, who read the 11th and 14th editions, devoting roughly three hours per night for four and a half years to read the 11th. Several editors-in-chief of the Britannica are likely to have read their editions completely, such as William Smellie (1st edition), William Robertson Smith (9th edition), and Walter Yust (14th edition).


The Britannica continues to win awards. The online Britannica won the 2005 Codie award for "Best Online Consumer Information Service"; the Codie awards are granted yearly by the Software and Information Industry Association to recognise the best products among categories of software. In 2006, the Britannica was again a finalist. Similarly, the CD/DVD-ROM version of the Britannica received the 2004 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of Educational Publishers, and Codie awards in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Coverage of topics

As a general encyclopaedia, the Britannica seeks to describe as wide a range of topics as possible. The topics are chosen in part by reference to the Propædia "Outline of Knowledge". The bulk of the Britannica is devoted to geography (26% of the Macropædia), biography (14%), biology and medicine (11%), literature (7%), physics and astronomy (6%), religion (5%), art (4%), Western philosophy (4%), and law (3%). A complementary study of the Micropædia found that geography accounted for 25% of articles, science 18%, social sciences 17%, biography 17%, and all other humanities 25%. Writing in 1992, one reviewer judged that the "range, depth, and catholicity of coverage [of the Britannica] are unsurpassed by any other general encyclopedia."

The Britannica does not cover similar topics in equivalent detail; for example, the whole of Buddhism and most other religions is covered in a single Macropædia article, whereas 14 articles are devoted to Christianity, comprising nearly half of all religion articles. However, the Britannica has been lauded as the least biased of general encyclopedias marketed to Western readers and praised for its biographies of important women of all eras.

It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the 15th edition of the Britannica accords non-Western cultural, social, and scientific developments more notice than any general English-language encyclopedia currently on the market.

Kenneth Kister, in Kister's Best Encyclopedias (1994)


The Britannica has also received criticism, especially as its editions become outdated. It is expensive to produce a completely new edition of the Britannica, and its editors generally delay this for as long as fiscally sensible (usually about 25 years). For example, despite the policy of continuous revision, the 14th edition had become significantly outdated after 35 years (1929–1964). When American physicist Harvey Einbinder detailed its failings in his 1964 book, The Myth of the Britannica, the encyclopedia was provoked to produce the 15th edition, which required 10 years of work. It is still difficult to keep the Britannica current; one recent critic writes, "it is not difficult to find articles that are out-of-date or in need of revision," noting that the longer Macropædia articles are more likely to be outdated than the shorter Micropædia articles. Information in the Micropædia is sometimes inconsistent with the corresponding Macropædia article(s), mainly because of the failure to update one or the other. The bibliographies of the Macropædia articles have been criticised for being more out-of-date than the articles themselves.

Historically, the Britannica's authors have included eminent authorities, such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Leon Trotsky. However, some of its contributors have been criticised for their lack of expertise:

With a temerity almost appalling, [the Britannica contributor, Mr. Philips] ranges over nearly the whole field of European history, political, social, ecclesiastical… The grievance is that [this work] lacks authority. This, too—this reliance on editorial energy instead of on ripe special learning—may, alas, be also counted an "Americanizing": for certainly nothing has so cheapened the scholarship of our American encyclopaedias.

—Prof. George L. Burr, in the American Historical Review (1911)


Various authorities ranging from Virginia Woolf to academic professors criticised the 11th edition Britannica for having bourgeois and old-fashioned opinions on art, literature and social sciences. For example, it was faulted for neglecting the work of Sigmund Freud. A contemporary Cornell professor, Edward B. Titchener, wrote in 1912, "the new Britannica does not reproduce the psychological atmosphere of its day and generation… Despite the halo of authority, and despite the scrutiny of the staff, the great bulk of the secondary articles in general psychology … are not adapted to the requirements of the intelligent reader."

Editorial choices

The Britannica is occasionally criticised for its editorial choices. Given its roughly constant size, the encyclopaedia has needed to reduce or eliminate some topics to accommodate others, resulting in some controversial decisions. The initial 15th edition (1974–1985) was faulted for having drastically reduced or eliminated its coverage of children's literature, military decorations, and the French poet Joachim du Bellay; editorial mistakes were also alleged, such as an inconsistent sorting of Japanese biographies. Its elimination of the index was condemned, as was the apparently arbitrary division of articles into the Micropædia and Macropædia. Summing up, one critic called the initial 15th edition a "qualified failure…[that] cares more for juggling its format than for preserving information." More recently, reviewers from the American Library Association were surprised to find that most educational articles had been eliminated from the 1992 Macropædia, along with the article on psychology.

Britannica-appointed contributors are occasionally mistaken or unscientific. A notorious instance from the Britannica's early years is the rejection of Newtonian gravity by George Gleig, the chief editor of the 3rd edition (1788–1797), who wrote that gravity was caused by the classical element of fire. However, the Britannica has also staunchly defended a scientific approach to emotional topics, as it did with William Robertson Smith's articles on religion in the 9th edition, particularly his article stating that the Bible was not historically accurate (1875).

Racism and sexism in prior editions

By modern standards, past editions of the Britannica have contained articles marred by racism and sexism. The 11th edition characterises the Ku Klux Klan as protecting the white race and restoring order to the American South after the American Civil War, citing the need to "control the negro", to "prevent any intermingling of the races" and "the frequent occurrence of the crime of rape by negro men upon white women." Similarly, the article on Civilization argues for eugenics, stating that it is irrational to "propagate low orders of intelligence, to feed the ranks of paupers, defectives and criminals … which to-day constitute so threatening an obstacle to racial progress." The 11th edition has no biography of Marie Curie, despite her winning of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, although she is mentioned briefly under the biography of her husband Pierre Curie. The Britannica employed a large female editorial staff that wrote hundreds of articles for which they were not given credit.


In 1912 mathematician L. C. Karpinski criticised the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition for its many inaccuracies in the articles on the history of mathematics, none of which had been written by specialists in the field. In 1917, art critic Willard Huntington Wright published a book, Misinforming a Nation, that highlighted inaccuracies and English biases of the Eleventh Edition, particularly in the humanities articles. Many of Wright's criticisms were addressed in later editions of the Britannica. However, his book was denounced as a polemic by some contemporary reviewers; for example, the New York Times wrote that a "spiteful and shallow temper…pervades the book," while The New Republic opined, "it is unfortunate for Mr. Wright's remorseless purpose that he has proceeded in an unscientific spirit and given so little objective justification of his criticism." Another critic, English writer and former priest Joseph McCabe, claimed that the Britannica was susceptible to editorial pressure from the Roman Catholic Church in his book, Lies And Fallacies Of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1947).

The Britannica has always conceded that errors are inevitable in an encyclopaedia. Speaking of the 3rd edition (1788–1797), its chief editor George Gleig wrote that "perfection seems to be incompatible with the nature of works constructed on such a plan, and embracing such a variety of subjects." More recently (March 2006), the Britannica wrote that "we in no way mean to imply that Britannica is error-free; we have never made such a claim." The sentiment is expressed by its original editor, William Smellie.

With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever. Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce.

William Smellie, in the Preface to the 1st edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica

Present status

15th edition of the Britannica. The initial volume with the green spine is the Propædia; the red-spined and black-spined volumes are the Micropædia and the Macropædia, respectively. The last three volumes are the 2002 Book of the Year (black spine) and the two-volume index (cyan spine).

2007 print version

Since 1985, the Britannica has had four parts: the Micropædia, the Macropædia, the Propædia, and a two-volume index. The Britannica's articles are found in the Micro- and Macropædia, which encompass 12 and 17 volumes, respectively, each volume having roughly one thousand pages. The 2007 Macropædia has 699 in-depth articles, ranging in length from 2 to 310 pages and having references and named contributors. In contrast, the 2007 Micropædia has roughly 65,000 articles, the vast majority (about 97%) of which contain fewer than 750 words, no references, and no named contributors. The Micropædia articles are intended for quick fact-checking and to help in finding more thorough information in the Macropædia. The Macropædia articles are meant both as authoritative, well-written articles on their subjects and as storehouses of information not covered elsewhere. The longest article (310 pages) is on the United States, and resulted from the merger of the articles on the individual states.

Information can be found in the Britannica by following the cross-references in the Micropædia and Macropædia; however, these are sparse, averaging one cross-reference per page. Hence, readers are recommended to consult instead the alphabetical index or the Propædia, which organises the Britannica's contents by topic.

The core of the Propædia is its "Outline of Knowledge," which aims to provide a logical framework for all human knowledge. Accordingly, the Outline is consulted by the Britannica's editors to decide which articles should be included in the Micro- and Macropædia. The Outline is also intended to be a study guide, to put subjects in their proper perspective, and to suggest a series of Britannica articles for the student wishing to learn a topic in depth. However, libraries have found that it is scarcely used, and reviewers have recommended that it be dropped from the encyclopedia. The Propædia also has colour transparencies of human anatomy and several appendices listing the staff members, advisors, and contributors to all three parts of the Britannica.

Taken together, the Micropædia and Macropædia comprise roughly 40 million words and 24,000 images. The two-volume index has 2,350 pages, listing the 228,274 topics covered in the Britannica, together with 474,675 subentries under those topics. The Britannica generally prefers British spelling over American; for example, it uses colour (not colour), centre (not centre), and encyclopaedia (not encyclopedia). However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as defense rather than defence. Common alternative spellings are provided with cross-references such as "Colour: see Colour."

Since 1936, the articles of the Britannica have been revised on a regular schedule, with at least 10% of them considered for revision each year. According to one Britannica web-site, 46% of its articles were revised over the past three years; however, according to another Britannica web-site, only 35% of the articles were revised.

The alphabetisation of articles in the Micropædia and Macropædia follows strict rules. Diacritical marks and non-English letters are ignored, while numerical entries such as " 1812, War of" are alphabetised as if the number had been written out ("Eighteen-twelve, War of"). Articles with identical names are ordered first by persons, then by places, then by things. Rulers with identical names are organised first alphabetically by country and then by chronology; thus, Charles III of France precedes Charles I of England, listed in Britannica as the ruler of Great Britain and Ireland. (That is, they are alphabetised as if their titles were "Charles, France, 3" and "Charles, Great Britain and Ireland, 1".) Similarly, places that share names are organised alphabetically by country, then by ever-smaller political divisions.

Related printed material

There have been and are several abbreviated Britannica encyclopedias. The single-volume Britannica Concise Encyclopædia has 28,000 short articles condensing the larger 32-volume Britannica. Compton's by Britannica, first published in 2007, incorporating the former Compton's Encyclopedia, is aimed at adolescents ages 10–17 and consists of 26 volumes and 11,000 pages. A Children's Britannica was published by the company's London office in 1960; this was edited by John Armitage and dedicated to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales; contributors were almost all British, and editorial consultants were "The Headmaster, Staff and Children of the William Austin Primary School, Luton, Bedfordshire". Other products include My First Britannica, aimed at children ages six to twelve, and the Britannica Discovery Library, written for children ages three to six (issued 1974 to 1991). Since 1938, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has published annually a Book of the Year covering the past year's events, which is available online back to the 1994 edition (covering the events of 1993). The company also publishes several specialized reference works, such as Shakespeare: The Essential Guide to the Life and Works of the Bard (Wiley, 2006).

Optical disc and online and mobile versions

The Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite 2006 DVD contains over 55 million words and just over 100,000 articles. This includes 73,645 regular Britannica articles, with the remainder drawn from the Britannica Student Encyclopædia, the Britannica Elementary Encyclopædia and the Britannica Book of the Year (1993–2004), plus a few "classic" articles from early editions of the encyclopaedia. The package includes a range of supplementary content including maps, videos, sound clips, animations and web links. It also offers study tools and dictionary and thesaurus entries from Merriam-Webster.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online is a Web site with more than 120,000 articles and is updated regularly. It has daily features, updates and links to news reports from The New York Times and the BBC. Subscriptions are available on a yearly, monthly or weekly basis. Special subscription plans are offered to schools, colleges and libraries; such institutional subscribers constitute an important part of Britannica's business. Articles may be accessed online for free, but only a few opening lines of text are displayed. Beginning in early 2007, the Britannica made articles freely available if they are linked to from an external site; such external links often improve an article's rankings in search engine results.

On 20 February 2007, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. announced that it was working with mobile phone search company AskMeNow to launch a mobile encyclopedia. Users will be able to send a question via text message, and AskMeNow will search Britannica's 28,000-article concise encyclopedia to return an answer to the query. Daily topical features sent directly to users' mobile phones are also planned.

A radical initiative to use a wiki-based model to expand Britannica's on-line content was announced on the June 3, 2008. This is planned to involve a broad range of contributors, with editorial oversight from Britannica staff.

Personnel and management


The 2007 print version of the Britannica boasts 4,411 contributors, many eminent in their fields, such as Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, astronomer Carl Sagan, and surgeon Michael DeBakey. Roughly a quarter of the contributors are deceased, some as long ago as 1947 ( Alfred North Whitehead), while another quarter are retired or emeritus. Most (approximately 98%) contribute to only a single article; however, 64 contributed to three articles, 23 contributed to four articles, 10 contributed to five articles, and 8 contributed to more than five articles. An exceptionally prolific contributor is Dr. Christine Sutton of the University of Oxford, who contributed 24 articles on particle physics.


Portrait of Thomas Spencer Baynes, editor of the 9th edition. Painted in 1888, it now hangs in the Senate Room of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Dale Hoiberg, a sinologist, is the Britannica's Senior Vice President and editor-in-chief. Among his predecessors as editors-in-chief were Hugh Chisholm (1902–1924), James Louis Garvin (1926–1932), Franklin Henry Hooper (1902–1938), Walter Yust (1938–1960), Harry Ashmore (1960–1963), Warren E. Preece (1964–1968, 1969–1975), Sir William Haley (1968–1969), Philip W. Goetz (1979–1991), and Robert McHenry (1992–1997). Anita Wolff and Theodore Pappas serve as the current Deputy Editor and Executive Editor, respectively. Prior Executive Editors include John V. Dodge (1950–1964) and Philip W. Goetz.

The Britannica maintains an editorial staff of five Senior Editors and nine Associate Editors, supervised by Dale Hoiberg and four others. The editorial staff help in authoring the articles of the Micropædia and some sections of the Macropædia.

Editorial advisors

The Britannica has an Editorial Board of Advisors, which includes 12 distinguished scholars:

  • author Nicholas Carr,
  • religion scholar Wendy Doniger,
  • political economist Benjamin M. Friedman,
  • Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb,
  • computer scientist David Gelernter,
  • Physics Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann,
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York President Vartan Gregorian,
  • philosopher Thomas Nagel,
  • cognitive scientist Donald Norman,
  • musicologist Don Michael Randel,
  • Stewart Sutherland, Baron Sutherland of Houndwood, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and
  • cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch.

The Propædia and its Outline of Knowledge were produced by dozens of editorial advisors under the direction of Mortimer J. Adler. Roughly half of these advisors have since died, including some of the Outline's chief architects: Rene Dubos (d. 1982), Loren Eiseley (d. 1977), Harold D. Lasswell (d. 1978), Mark Van Doren (d. 1972), Peter Ritchie Calder (d. 1982) and Mortimer J. Adler (d. 2001). The Propædia also lists just under 4,000 advisors who were consulted for the unsigned Micropædia articles.

Corporate structure

In January 1996, the Britannica was purchased from the Benton Foundation by billionaire Swiss financier Jacqui Safra, who serves as its current Chair of the Board. In 1997, Don Yannias, a long-time associate and investment advisor of Safra, became CEO of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. A new company, Inc. was spun off in 1999 to develop the digital versions of the Britannica; Yannias assumed the role of CEO in the new company, while that of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. remained vacant for two years. Yannias' tenure at Inc. was marked by missteps, large lay-offs and financial losses. In 2001, Yannias was replaced by Ilan Yeshua, who reunited the leadership of the two companies. Yannias later returned to investment management, but remains on the Britannica's Board of Directors.

In 2003, former management consultant Jorge Aguilar-Cauz was appointed President of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Cauz is the senior executive and reports directly to the Britannica's Board of Directors. Cauz has been pursuing alliances with other companies and extending the Britannica brand to new educational and reference products, continuing the strategy pioneered by former CEO Elkan Harrison Powell in the mid-1930s.

Under Safra's ownership, the company has experienced financial difficulties, and has responded by reducing the price of its products and implementing drastic cost cuts. According to a 2003 report in the New York Post, the Britannica management has eliminated employee 401(k) accounts and encouraged the use of free images. These changes have had negative impacts, as freelance contributors have waited up to six months for checks and the Britannica staff have gone years without pay rises.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. now owns registered trademarks on the words Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Macropædia, Micropædia, and Propædia, as well as on its thistle logo. It has exercised its trademark rights as recently as 2005.


As the Britannica is a general encyclopaedia, it does not seek to compete with specialised encyclopaedias such as the Encyclopaedia of Mathematics or the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, which can devote much more space to their chosen topics. In its first years, the Britannica's main competitor was the general encyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers and, soon thereafter, Rees's Cyclopaedia and Coleridge's Encyclopaedia Metropolitana. In the 20th century, successful competitors included Collier's Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia Americana, and the World Book Encyclopedia. Each of these encyclopaedias has qualities that make it outstanding, such as exceptionally clear writing or superb illustrations. Nevertheless, from the 9th edition onwards, the Britannica was widely considered to have the greatest authority of any general English language encyclopaedia, especially because of its broad coverage and eminent authors. However, the print version of the Britannica is significantly more expensive than its competitors.

Since the early 1990s, the Britannica has faced new challenges from digital information sources. The Internet, facilitated by the development of search engines, has grown into a common source of information for many people, and provides easy access to reliable original sources and expert opinions, thanks in part to initiatives such as Google Books, MIT's release of its educational materials and the open PubMed Central library of the National Library of Medicine. In general, the Internet tends to provide more current coverage than print media, due to the ease with which material on the Internet can be updated. In rapidly changing fields such as science, technology, politics, culture and modern history, the Britannica has struggled to stay up-to-date, a problem first analysed systematically by its former editor Walter Yust. Although the Britannica is now available both in multimedia form and over the Internet, its preeminence is being challenged by other online encyclopaedias, such as Encarta and Wikipedia.

Print encyclopedias

The Encyclopædia Britannica has been compared with other print encyclopaedias, both qualitatively and quantitatively. A well-known comparison is that of Kenneth Kister, who gave a qualitative and quantitative comparison of the Britannica with two comparable encyclopaedias, Collier's Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Americana. For the quantitative analysis, ten articles were selected at random ( circumcision, Charles Drew, Galileo, Philip Glass, heart disease, IQ, panda bear, sexual harassment, Shroud of Turin and Uzbekistan) and letter grades (A–D, F) were awarded in four categories: coverage, accuracy, clarity, and recency. In all four categories and for all three encyclopaedias, the four average grades fell between B− and B+, chiefly because not one encyclopaedia had an article on sexual harassment in 1994. In the accuracy category, the Britannica received one D and eight As. Encyclopedia Americana received eight As, and Collier's received one D and seven As; thus, Britannica received an average score of 92% for accuracy to Americana’s 95% and Collier's’ 92%. The 1994 Britannica was faulted for publishing an inflammatory story about Charles Drew that had long been discredited. In the timeliness category, Britannica averaged an 86% to Americana’s 90% and Collier's’ 85%. After a more thorough qualitative comparison of all three encyclopedias, Kister recommended Collier's Encyclopedia as the superior encyclopaedia, primarily on the strength of its excellent writing, balanced presentation and easy navigation.

Internet encyclopedias

Online alternatives to the Britannica include Wikipedia, a freely available Web-based free-content encyclopedia. Wikipedia receives roughly 450 times more traffic than the online version of the Britannica, based on independent page-view statistics gathered by Alexa in the first three months of 2007.

A key difference between the two encyclopaedias lies in article authorship. The 699 Macropædia articles are generally written by identified contributors, and the roughly 65,000 Micropædia articles are the work of the editorial staff and identified outside consultants. Thus, a Britannica article either has known authorship or a set of possible authors (the editorial staff). With the exception of the editorial staff, most of the Britannica's contributors are experts in their field—some are Nobel laureates. By contrast, the articles of Wikipedia are written by a community of editors with varying levels of expertise: most editors do not claim any particular expertise; of those who do, many are anonymous and have no verifiable credentials. Another difference is the pace of article change: the Britannica is published in print every few years, while Wikipedia's articles are likely to change frequently. Wikipedia has been criticised in other respects as well, and it has been argued that Wikipedia cannot hope to rival the Britannica in accuracy.

On 14 December 2005, the scientific journal Nature reported that, within 42 randomly selected general science articles, there were 162 mistakes in Wikipedia versus 123 in Britannica. In its detailed 20-page rebuttal, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. characterized Nature's study as flawed and misleading and called for a "prompt" retraction. It noted that two of the articles in the study were taken from a Britannica year book, and not the encyclopedia; another two were from Compton's Encyclopedia (called the Britannica Student Encyclopedia on the company's web site). The rebuttal went on to mention that some of the articles presented to reviewers were combinations of several articles, and that other articles were merely excerpts but were penalized for factual omissions. The company also noted that several facts classified as errors by Nature were minor spelling variations, and that several of its alleged errors were matters of interpretation. Nature defended its story and declined to retract, stating that, as it was comparing Wikipedia with the web version of Britannica, it used whatever relevant material was available on Britannica's website.

Edition summary

Edition/supplement Publication years Size Chief editor(s) Notes
1st 1768–1771 3 volumes, 2,670 pages, 160 plates William Smellie Largely the work of one editor, Smellie; 30 articles longer than three pages
2nd 1777–1784 10 volumes, 8,595 pages, 340 plates James Tytler 150 long articles; pagination errors; all maps under "Geography" article
3rd 1788–1797 18 volumes, 14,579 pages, 542 plates Colin Macfarquhar and George Gleig 42,000 pounds profit on 10,000 copies sold; introduction of chemical symbols
supplement to 3rd 1801 2 volumes, 1,624 pages, 50 plates George Gleig Copyright owned by Thomas Bonar, first dedication to monarch
4th 1801–1809 20 volumes, 16,033 pages, 581 plates James Millar Authors first allowed to retain copyright
5th 1817 20 volumes, 16,017 pages, 582 plates James Millar Financial losses by Millar and Andrew Bell's heirs; EB rights sold to Archibald Constable
supplement to 5th 1816–1824 6 volumes, 4,933 pages, 125 plates1 Macvey Napier Famous contributors recruited, such as Sir Humphry Davy, Sir Walter Scott, Malthus
6th 1820–1823 20 volumes Charles Maclaren Constable went bankrupt on 19 January 1826; EB rights eventually secured by Adam Black
7th 1830–1842 21 volumes, 17,101 pages, 506 plates, 187-page index Macvey Napier, assisted by James Browne, LLD Widening network of famous contributors, such as Sir David Brewster, Thomas de Quincey, Antonio Panizzi
8th 1853–1860 21 volumes, 17,957 pages, 402 plates; separate 239-page index, published 18612 Thomas Stewart Traill Many long articles were copied from the 7th edition; 344 contributors including William Thomson
9th 1875–1889 24 volumes, plus one index volume Thomas Spencer Baynes (1875–80); then W. Robertson Smith Some carry-over from 8th edition, but mostly a new work; high point of scholarship; pirated widely in the U.S.3
supplement to 9th
1902–1903 11 volumes, plus the 24 volumes of the 9th4 Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace and Hugh Chisholm in London; Arthur T. Hadley & Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City American partnership bought EB rights on 9 May 1901; high-pressure sales methods
11th 1910–1911 28 volumes, plus one index volume Hugh Chisholm in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City Another high point of scholarship and writing; more articles than the 9th, but shorter and simpler; financial difficulties for owner, Horace Everett Hooper; EB rights sold to Sears Roebuck in 1920
supplement to 11th
1921–1922 3 volumes, plus the 28 volumes of the 11th5 Hugh Chisholm in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City Summarized state of the world before, during, and after World War I
supplement to 11th
1926 3 volumes, plus the 28 volumes of the 11th6 James Louis Garvin in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City Replaced 12th edition volumes; improved perspective of the events of 1910–1926
14th 1929–1933 24 volumes 7 James Louis Garvin in London, Franklin Henry Hooper in New York City Publication just before Great Depression was financially catastrophic
revised 14th 1933–1973 24 volumes 7 Franklin Henry Hooper until 1938; then Walter Yust, Harry Ashmore, Warren E. Preece, William Haley Began continuous revision in 1936: every article revised at least twice every decade
15th 1974–1984 30 volumes 8 Warren E. Preece, then Philip W. Goetz Introduced three-part structure; division of articles into Micropædia and Macropædia; Propædia Outline of Knowledge; separate index eliminated
1985–present 32 volumes 9 Philip W. Goetz, then Robert McHenry, currently Dale Hoiberg Restored two-volume index; merged Micropædia and Macropædia articles; slightly longer overall; new versions issued every few years
Edition notes

1Supplement to the fourth, fifth, and sixth editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. With preliminary dissertations on the history of the sciences.

2 The 8th to 14th editions included a separate index volume.

3 The 9th edition featured articles by notables of the day, such as James Maxwell on electricity and magnetism, and William Thomson (who became Lord Kelvin) on heat.

4 The 10th edition included a maps volume and a cumulative index volume for the 9th and 10th edition volumes: the new volumes, constituting, in combination with the existing volumes of the 9th ed., the 10th ed. … and also supplying a new, distinctive, and independent library of reference dealing with recent events and developments

5 Vols. 30–32 … the New volumes constituting, in combination with the twenty-nine volumes of the eleventh edition, the twelfth edition

6 This supplement replaced the previous supplement: The three new supplementary volumes constituting, with the volumes of the latest standard edition, the thirteenth edition.

7 This edition was the first to be kept up to date by continual (usually annual) revision.

8 The 15th edition (introduced as "Britannica 3") was published in three parts: a 10-volume Micropædia (which contained short articles and served as an index), a 19-volume Macropædia, plus the Propædia (see text). It was reorganised in 1985 to have 12 and 17 volumes in the Micro- and Macropædia.

9 In 1985, the system was modified by adding a separate two-volume index; the Macropædia articles were further consolidated into fewer, larger ones (for example, the previously separate articles about the 50 U.S. states were all included into the "United States of America" article), with some medium-length articles moved to the Micropædia.

The first CD-ROM edition was issued in 1994. At that time also an online version was offered for paid subscription. In 1999 this was offered for free, and no revised print versions appeared. The experiment was ended in 2001 and a new printed set was issued in 2002.

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