Scientists Are Using Wikipedia More Than They Admit

Sep 26, 2017

Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website in the world, for obvious reasons. It’s a quick way to get an overview of just about anything.

Schools tend to discourage its use out of concerns about accuracy and reliability, but new research from MIT finds that scientists are using Wikipedia and it is influencing the ideas they investigate and write about.

Co-author Neil Thompson, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says he knew that he and his colleagues have been using Wikipedia. But nobody ever cites Wikipedia in scientific publications, either out of embarrassment or because many institutions discourage or forbid it.

So, Thompson and a colleague came up with a way of testing just how much of an influence Wikipedia is having on what ends up in traditionally published scientific papers. They had MIT graduate students in chemistry write new Wikipedia articles, then looked for similar language to show up in scientific studies.

Sure enough, they found it. Thompson says Wikipedia accounts for about one in every three hundred meaningful words. The effect is greatest in countries with lower per capita GDP – places where access to expensive scientific journals is likely limited.

While this could seem scary to some, Thompson says he sees it as an opportunity to bring scientific information to broader, more diverse audiences. Thompson says he’s not overly concerned about Wikipedia introducing errors or bias, noting that studies have found error rates in Wikipedia are similar to expert-edited encyclopedias.

Thompson argues that, rather than trying to clamp down on the use of Wikipedia, the science community should embrace Wikipedia and put effort and resources into making it the best it can be.