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.”

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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.

The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the coming days, Peter will be making his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to corresponding sections of his book. Today, you can read his second essay “On Wikipedia, the Encyclopédie, and the Verifiability of Information” (below), plus download the second chapter of his book here. Read his first essay, “The Monsterverse” here, and purchase the entire book online.

When the ideas that matter most to us – liberals, democrats, progressives, republicans, all in the original sense of the words – were first put forward in society in order to change society, they were advanced foremost in print. The new rules, new definitions, and new codicils of human and civil rights that undergird many of the freedoms we value today had as their heart text and its main delivery mechanism, the printing press.

In that sense the first Enlightenment was based upon the foundation of the printed word. And of the 18th century’s contributions to knowledge and society – Newton’s physics, Montesquieu’s laws, Linnaeus’s taxonomies, Rousseau’s political philosophy, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man – there was perhaps no greater printed offering than the 22-million-word Encyclopédie that the French Enlightenment philosophers starting writing, compiling, and offering to the public in 1750.

The Encyclopédie was monumental. Not just from a content-assembly perspective – an effort to gather all the world’s knowledge and to print and publish it – but also from a sociopolitical one, given the powerful forces suppressing knowledge that such an effort would provoke. The Encyclopédie found the state and the church banning at one time or another almost every one of its 72,000 articles, 18,000 pages, and 28 volumes and invoking a hundred ways to forbid its distribution.

The encyclopedia’s entire approach to collecting and presenting knowledge was radical.  The articles presented truths – some heretical, some blasphemous – that astonished contemporary readers.  And its innovative approach to the verification its own content, to proving what could be proved, which was really its nuclear core, rocked the Western world.

The Encyclopédie smote 18th-century orthodoxy with ink-and-paper sledgehammers. The article on “RAISON,” or “REASON,” for example, told every reader who for centuries had been steeped in church doctrine and the divine rights of royals that:

No proposition can be accepted as divine revelation if it contradicts what is known to us, either by immediate intuition, as in the case of self-evident propositions, or by obvious deductions of reason, as in demonstrations.  It would be ridiculous to give preference to such revelations, because the evidence that causes us to adopt them cannot surpass the certainty of our intuitive or demonstrative knowledge…

Clerics and kings, needless to say, were not fans. Articles on religion, philosophy, and politics and society challenged the government and the church even as the censors watched.  Direct swipes at the monarchy and the church appeared even where you might not expect – in articles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; CROISADES; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; etc.  The entry for FORTUNE spotlighted the gross inequalities of wealth already evident in 18th-century Europe. And a zinging condemnation of slavery in the article on the SLAVE TRADE made few friends among any who had a hand anywhere in the business.

Slave trade is the purchase of Negroes made by Europeans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfortunate men as slaves in their colonies. This purchase of Negroes to reduce them into slavery [. . .] violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights.

The Encyclopédistes announced from day one that this new work would be, as we would say today, fact-based. There would be an underlying and overarching commitment on the part of all contributors and the work as a whole to the verification of all of its source materials. Verification is potentially “a long and painful process,” Diderot wrote in his introduction to the whole enterprise – the famous “Preliminary Discourse” that these philosophers used to sell in the whole project:

We have tried as much as possible to avoid this inconvenience by citing directly, in the body of the articles, the authors on whose evidence we have relied and by quoting their own text when it is necessary.

We have everywhere compared opinions, weighed reasons, and proposed means of doubting or of escaping from doubt; at times we have even settled contested matters. . . . Facts are cited, experiments compared, and methods elaborated . . . in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new discoveries, using the place where great men have ended their careers as the first step.

What this meant in practice was revolutionary.  There would be no accepted truths but for those that could be proven and cited. Fact-based versus faith- and belief-based: the start and spark of the Enlightenment.  One of Diderot’s biographers explains that approximately 23,000 articles had at least one cross-reference to another article in one of the encyclopedia’s 28 volumes. “The total number of links – some articles had five or six – reached almost 62,000.” And all while retaining a sly sense of humor.  The article on CANNIBALS ended with “the mischievous cross-reference,” as another historian would later describe it: “See Eucharist, Communion, Altar, etc.”

That commitment to reference citation continues in the Enlightenment’s most important successor project – Wikipedia, founded by Jimmy Wales and colleagues 20 years ago this year. It’s the foundation of what today’s Wikipedia terms verifiability, and in many key ways it’s the foundation for truth in knowledge and society today:

“Verifiability” . . . mean[s] that material added to Wikipedia must have been published previously by a reliable source. Editors may not add their own views to articles simply because they believe them to be correct, and may not remove sources’ views from articles simply because they disagree with them.

[V]erifiability is a necessary condition (a minimum requirement) for the inclusion of material, though it is not a sufficient condition (it may not be enough).

In 1999, free-software activist Richard M. Stallman called for this universal online encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, along with a complete library of instructional courses – and, equally important, a movement to develop it, “much as the Free Software Movement gave us the free operating system GNU/Linux.”  That call (reproduced in full as the appendix in my book) is credited by Wikipedia as the origins of the work that is now the largest knowledge resource in history.

The free encyclopedia will provide an alternative to the restricted ones that media corporations will write.

Stallman published a list of what that the encyclopedia would need to do, what sort of freedoms it would need to give to the public, and how it could get started.

An encyclopedia located everywhere.

An encyclopedia open to anyone—but, most promisingly, to teachers and students.

An encyclopedia built of small steps.

An encyclopedia built on the long view: “If it takes twenty years to complete the free encyclopedia, that will be but an instant in the history of literature and civilization.”

An encyclopedia containing one or more articles for any topic you would expect to find in another encyclopedia – “for example, bird watchers might eventually contribute an article on each species of bird, along with pictures and recordings of its calls” – and “courses for all academic subjects.”

1999, and it sounds familiar. Wikipedia, of course, is one of the world’s most popular websites (the world’s most popular noncommercial one) now and an irreplaceable source of verifiable information – open to any and all.  Its processes are transparent, and thanks to hackers affiliated with the project, you now can watch and listen to its edits live online:

Communities that work with Wikipedia are likely to benefit from this commitment to citation, and new collaborations that take effect around it are likely to benefit society. The Internet Archive is working with Wikipedia now, digitizing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books themselves – and render images and text on the cited pages. The reference link to a biography by Taylor Branch at the bottom of a Wikipedia article on Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, now hotlinks to the readable book online at Archive.org.  That work is essential.  “Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them” – as Princeton historian Anthony Grafton writes – “makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted. . . .  Only the use of footnotes enables historians to make their texts not monologues but conversations, in which modern scholars, their predecessors, and their subjects all take part.”

Can we take verifiability further now, especially as our epistemic crisis deepens?  Can we improve citation for the medium that’s beginning to overtake us all, which is video?  Can we make resources on the web – also a new thing – verifiable?  What is a citation like in a . . . podcast?

The great historian of the Encyclopédie, Robert Darnton, tells us in his new book, “When the printed word appeared in France in 1470, the state did not know what to make of it.”  So, 700 years from now, what will tomorrow’s historians say about us?  Further thoughts about how we can start more consciously collaborating with one another and producing – but immediately – for our burgeoning knowledge networks: next week.

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge. This is the second of three articles. You can find the first one in the Relateds below:

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The CIA’s Former Chief of Disguise Show How Spies Use Costumes in Undercover Operations

Think on this as you ready your Halloween finery. Sometimes it’s not a case of winning a costume contest, or impressing your friends with your witty take on current events or pop culture.

Sometimes, masquerade is a thin line between life and death.

The CIA’s former Chief of Disguise, Jonna Mendez, rose up through the ranks, having signed on as receptionist shortly after her fiancé revealed—three days before the wedding—that he was actually an undercover agent.




As Chief of Disguise, her mission was to protect case officers in dangerous situations, as well as foreign sources who routinely put their lives at risk by meeting with American operatives.

Transforming their appearance was an additive proposition—while it’s difficult to make someone shorter, slimmer, or younger, it’s not difficult to render them taller, heavier, older…

In her experience, women are easily disguised as men. (She shared with The New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg how she herself passed undetected in male mufti, thanks primarily to a lit cigar.)

Men have a tougher time passing as women. Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race might take exception to this position, were it not for the assertion that blending in is key.

The goal is to be forgettable, not fabulous.

For Americans abroad, this poses certain cultural challenges.

Mendez stresses that disguise is much more than a simple facial transformation, involving makeup, false hair, and prosthetics.

It’s dress, carriage, gait, jewelry, scent…

The biggest American giveaway is our shoes. An Italian civilian can peg ‘em with one swift glance.

Passing requires further behavioral modifications in the realms of table manners, gait, and even hanging out. (Europeans distribute their weight evenly, whereas Americans lean.)

To fly beneath the radar, the disguised operative must shoot to transform every aspect of their appearance. Imagine a survey wherein the participant recalls every physical aspect of someone they’ve just encountered. The goal is to nudge that participant into answering every question incorrectly.

What color are your eyes? Your hair? How much do you weigh? How tall are you? How old?  How would you describe your nose? Your voice? Your clothing?

Change it.

Change it all.

You can do so by low tech methods, using whatever is on hand. Mendez once maneuvered an agent out of a tight spot on the Sub-Continent, by improvising a quick change with Dr. Scholl’s powder and cosmetics collected from local CIA wives.

She credits her own second husband, CIA “master of disguise” Tony Mendez (the inspiration for Ben Affleck’s character in Argo) with many trade secrets she put into regular practice: dental facades, speech-altering artificial palettes, prosthetics…

At the high end is the mask she wore to brief former CIA Chief, President George HW Bush, on developments within the disguise program. The President was none the wiser.

Meanwhile, a masked American agent chucked his mask under a Moscow rock when danger compelled him to scupper his mission midway through. That mask now resides in the KGB museum where Mendez cannot visit it.

Check out the Mendezes’ book Spydust for more information on their adventures in the field.

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Declassified CIA Document Reveals That Ben Franklin (and His Big Ego) Put U.S. National Security at Risk

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 12 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Creative Commons Announces “School of Open” with Courses to Focus on Digital Openness

Just in time to celebrate Open Education Week, here comes a new initiative, the School of Open, a learning environment focused on increasing our understanding of “openness” and the benefits it brings to creativity and education in the digital age.

Developed by the collaborative education platform Peer to Peer University (P2PU) with organizational support from Creative Commons, the School of Open aims to spread understanding of the power of this brave new world through free online classes.

We hear about it all the time: Universal access to research, education and culture—all good things, without a doubt—made possible by things like open source software, open educational resources and the like.

But what are these various communities and what do they mean? How can we all learn more and get involved?

School of Open has rolled the conversation back to square one so that understanding the basics is easy. Through a list of new courses created by users and experts, people can learn more about what “openness” means and how to apply it. There are stand-alone courses on copyright, writing for Wikipedia, the collaborative environment of open science, and the process behind making open video.

These free courses start March 18 (sign up by clicking the “start course” button by Sunday, March 17):

These free courses are open for you to take at any time:

The approach at P2PU encourages people to work together, assess one another’s work, and provide constructive feedback. It’s a great place to learn how to design your own course, because the design process is broken down step-by-step, and course content is vetted by users and P2PU staff. The tutorial shows you how the process works.

P2PU is also a place to learn more about what is open content and what is not. Participants in the ongoing course Open Detective learn to identify open source media and then demonstrate mastery by making something of their own using only open content. What if you’re really, really proud of the resource you create in Open Detective? Take it to the next level and get a Creative Commons license to make your work available without giving up full copyright. You guessed it, there’s a course for that too.

Open Education Week is in full swing (through Monday the 18th). There’s a full schedule of webinars to check out, including discussions about the implications of open access for political structures like the World Bank, and the impact of open, global teaching in Syria.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Visit her website at .

The State of Wikipedia Animated

Amidst the celebration of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, Jimmy Wales has narrated an animated history of the web-based encyclopedia, and where he sees it heading in the future. One place you can expect to find Wikipedia going (something slightly hinted at here) is the classroom. In the months ahead, look for Wikipedia to develop an “open educational resource platform” that will help students make better use of Wikipedia in the classroom, if not contribute to writing stronger articles/entries. The Wired Campus has more on this new initiative coming down the pike.

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Big Thinkers on Wikipedia’s 10th Anniversary

Big Thinkers on Wikipedia’s 10th Anniversary

Wikipedia just turned 10 this weekend. And, to mark the occasion, The Atlantic asked ten “All-Star Thinkers” respond to a simple question: “What do you think about Wikipedia?” The responses? Well, they express the usual range of opinions, from appreciation to something approaching disdain. Take for example the two excerpts below:

Yochai Benkler, professor, Harvard Law School: That’s the biggest gift that Wikipedia has given to us — a vision of practical utopia. What gift can we best give back? Perhaps it is just this, to recognize the transformative role that thousands of individuals have played for all of us in how we can imagine our lives together as productive, engaged, social beings.

Jonathan Lethem, novelist, Pomona professor: With all respect to the noble volunteer army, I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikipedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.

Other contributors include Clay Shirky, NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen, and Mariette DiChristina (editor-in-chief, Scientific American). Get the full list here.

Open Video Coming to Wikipedia

Wikipedia is now opening the online encyclopedia to video, giving contributors a new way to convey information in a richer way. And they’re making a point of using video in an open format (Ogg Theora).

Among the confluence of factors coming together in 2010 are: 1) the growing awareness that video is the dominant medium of the web and that video can help make Wikipedia articles even richer; 2) the development of open source players and codecs (alternatives to Flash, Quicktime, Windows Media, and H.264, 3); the introduction of public browser tools—Firefox’s Firefogg extension, for example—for uploading and playing nonproprietary video formats; 4) the willingness of nonprofits like the Participatory Culture Foundation and the Open Video Alliance and for-profits like Kaltura and Intelligent Television to dedicate themselves to open video; and the provision of strategic funding from the Mozilla Foundation and Ford Foundation, among others, to support developers, programmers, and activists.  As Wikipedia board member S. J. Klein explains in a recent Open Video Alliance video short, the day is fast coming where video will be as easy for users to write, edit, annotate, and remix as text is today. (You can find more details on the campaign here and here.)

What are the recommendations for video contributed to Wikipedia? They should be related to current articles, short and under 100 MB, free, and available to share and reuse (offered under a Creative Commons BY-SA or equivalent license). In coming weeks new videos are expected to proliferate and new strategies will be unfurled for working with educational repositories of legacy video.

This post was contributed by Peter Kaufman, the CEO and president of Intelligent Television, who shares our passion for thoughtful media.

Google Knol Prediction Revisited

Back in December 2007, I made a bet against Google Knol, the search giant’s answer to Wikipedia. In a fairly involved piece, I listed three reasons why Knol wouldn’t upend Wikipedia. Now fast forward 18+ months: Tech Crunch has reported that Knol’s traffic is trending down. It peaked in February at around 320,000 visitors per month, according to Quantcast estimates. Now it’s at around 174,000. (See the graph here.) The bottom line? You can’t win at everything. But fortunately there’s some good new things coming out of Google, and we’ll be mentioning them in the coming days.

PS In case you didn’t hear, Wikipedia is starting to put editorial restrictions on certain entries. The laissez-faire days are coming to an end.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.