Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia available on the web. Although Wikipedia does employ algorithms to help identify and correct blatantly malicious edits, such as profanity; a new study has suggested that one should not trust Wikipedia blindly for every topic as entries on politically controversial scientific topics could be subjected to 'information sabotage'.
Study co-author Gene E. Likens, a distinguished research professor at the University of Connecticut, co-discovered acid rain in North America. She has monitored Wikipedia's acid rain entry since 2003. Likens said, "In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic. Its mechanics have been well understood for decades. Yet, despite having 'semi-protected' status to prevent anonymous changes, Wikipedia's acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science."
AdvertisementLikens partnered with Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the University at Buffalo, to analyze Wikipedia edit histories for three politically controversial scientific topics (acid rain, evolution, and global warming), and four non-controversial scientific topics (the standard model in physics, helio-centrism, general relativity, and continental drift). Using nearly a decade of data, the researchers teased out daily edit rates, the mean size of edits (words added, deleted, or edited), and the mean number of page views per day.
Likens and Wilson found that while the edit rate of the acid rain article was less than the edit rate of the evolution and global warming articles, it was significantly higher than the non-controversial topics. The researchers said, "Across the board, politically controversial scientific topics were edited more heavily and viewed more often."
Wilson said, "Wikipedia's global warming entry sees two to three editing a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few weeks. The high rate of change observed in politically controversial scientific topics makes it difficult for experts to monitor their accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections."
Likens said, "As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations when researching scientific topics that are politically charged."
The study has been published in PLOS ONE.
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