Wikipedia’s Surprising Power in Shaping Science: A New MIT Shows How Wikipedia Shapes Scientific Research

If you were in high school or col­lege when Wikipedia emerged, you’ll remem­ber how stren­u­ous­ly we were cau­tioned against using such an “unre­li­able source” for our assign­ments. If you went on to a career in sci­ence, how­ev­er, you now know how impor­tant a role Wikipedia plays in even pro­fes­sion­al research. It may thus sur­prise you to learn that stu­dents still get more or less the same warn­ing about what, two decades lat­er, has become the largest ency­clo­pe­dia and fifth most-vis­it­ed web site in the world. “Many of us use Wikipedia as a source of infor­ma­tion when we want a quick expla­na­tion of some­thing,” say MIT’s cita­tion guide­lines. “How­ev­er, Wikipedia or oth­er wikis, col­lab­o­ra­tive infor­ma­tion sites con­tributed to by a vari­ety of peo­ple, are not con­sid­ered reli­able sources for aca­d­e­m­ic cita­tion.”

That quo­ta­tion appears, some­what iron­i­cal­ly, in a recent MIT research paper called “Sci­ence is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evi­dence From a Ran­dom­ized Con­trol Tri­al.” Its authors, Neil C. Thomp­son from MIT and Dou­glas Han­ley from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh, use both “Big Data” and exper­i­men­tal approach­es to sup­port their claim that “incor­po­rat­ing ideas into a Wikipedia arti­cle leads to those ideas being used more in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture.”

Test­ing the exis­tence of an under­ly­ing causal rela­tion­ship, they “com­mis­sioned sub­ject mat­ter experts to cre­ate new Wikipedia arti­cles on sci­en­tif­ic top­ics not cov­ered in Wikipedia.” Half of these arti­cles were added to Wikipedia, and half retained as a con­trol group. “Review­ing the rel­e­vant jour­nal arti­cles pub­lished lat­er, they find that “the word-usage pat­terns from the treat­ment group show up more in the prose in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture than do those from the con­trol group.”

In oth­er words, Wikipedia does indeed appear to shape sci­ence — or as Whar­ton pro­fes­sor Ethan Mol­lick put it on Twit­ter, “The secret heart of acad­e­mia is… Wikipedia.” Expand­ing on the idea, he added that “Wikipedia is used like a review arti­cle,” which sur­veys the cur­rent state of a par­tic­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic field. “Review arti­cles are extreme­ly influ­en­tial on the direc­tion of sci­en­tif­ic research, and while Wikipedia arti­cles are gen­er­al­ly less influ­en­tial, there are more of them, they are more up-to-date, and they are free.” That last point — and the implied con­trast to tra­di­tion­al, sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals with their often shock­ing­ly high sub­scrip­tion fees — becomes a key point in Thomp­son and Han­ley’s advo­ca­cy for pub­lic repos­i­to­ries of knowl­edge in gen­er­al, with their pow­er to gal­va­nize research across the whole world. The pow­er of open cul­ture is con­sid­er­able; the pow­er of open sci­ence, per­haps even more so.

You can read Han­ley and Thomp­son’s study on the pow­er of Wikipedia free online: “Sci­ence is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evi­dence From a Ran­dom­ized Con­trol Tri­al.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Wikipedia: A Web Site That Turns Every Wikipedia Edit Into Ambi­ent Music in Real Time

NASA’s New Online Archive Puts a Wealth of Free Sci­ence Arti­cles Online

Roy­al Soci­ety Opens Online Archive; Puts 60,000 Papers Online

Free Online Cours­es: The Sci­ences

200 Free Text­books: A Meta Col­lec­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • EB says:

    Wikipedia is a won­der­ful resource, but it can be shock­ing­ly inac­cu­rate. Seem­ing cita­tions can often lead to an arti­cle that is on a relat­ed sub­ject, but which doesn’t actu­al­ly con­tain the infor­ma­tion cit­ed. It can at times be impos­si­ble to deter­mine where the list­ed infor­ma­tion is com­ing from. It’s less con­ve­nient, but if you’re look­ing up some­thing impor­tant, I real­ly rec­om­mend fol­low­ing up on the cita­tions to check that they’re accu­rate and recent. Of course, many cita­tions are of pub­lished books, and you just have to take those on faith.

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