Study suggests Wikipedia is accurate … and a little dull

Eight out of 10 students say they use Wikipedia for background knowledge.
Eight out of 10 students say they use Wikipedia for background knowledge.

Wikipedia enthusiasts may have a new way to argue their case to professors skeptical of the online encyclopedia: Cancer researchers said in June that Wikipedia was nearly as accurate as a well-respected, peer-reviewed database, although the wiki entries were a bit more boring.

Yaacov Lawrence, an assistant professor in Thomas Jefferson University’s Department of Radiation Oncology in Philadelphia, examined 10 types of cancer and compared Wikipedia’s information to statistics in the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query, a peer-reviewed oncology database.

About 2 percent of the information from both web-based resources differed from textbook sources, Lawrence found. Lawrence used algorithms to judge the readability of each cancer entry, and based on word length and sentence length, the Wikipedia entries were much more difficult to comprehend.

He discussed his findings at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting in Chicago, which ran from June 4-8.

“The accuracy [of Wikipedia] was good, but I think that there is more to a good encyclopedia than accuracy,” Lawrence said in an interview with eCampus News. “There is depth of coverage, readability, understanding, [and] engagement. We found that Wikipedia was better at discussing hard-known facts, but poor at discussing controversial issues.”

For an online treasure trove of 3.3 million articles, almost 21 million pages, and 12.7 million registered users, examining 10 cancer-related entries for a research project doesn’t mean Wikipedia–a site that lets anyone with an account and a web connection edit text–is comparable to data compiled and reviewed by professionals in a scientific field, Lawrence said.

“There needs to be a much larger survey done because if 1 percent of [Wikipedia] articles are severely flawed,” the Thomas Jefferson University research would probably not find those inaccuracies, he said. “Every source of academic information is subject to bias and requires verification.”

Starting last fall, entries written by new Wikipedia users must be edited by regular contributors, and changes to the biographies of celebrities or controversial figures will be reviewed before they go live on the site, said Erik Moeller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, adding in a blog post that “false information can do the most serious harm to an individual.”

The policy shift came after years of criticism by many in academia who saw the anonymity of Wikipedia contributors as a drawback for serious research.

Like many educators, Raymond MacDermott, an associate professor of economics at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., said Wikipedia is a good “starting point” for students delving into an unfamiliar topic, but the vast encyclopedia shouldn’t be the only resource a student cites in a research paper.

“I don’t dock points for students who use Wikipedia, but I might ridicule them for it,” MacDermott said. “Students still need to take [Wikipedia] with a grain or salt.”

MacDermott tells his students to examine sources cited in Wikipedia entries that are listed at the bottom of each page.

For instance, Wikipedia’s entry on the internet includes “notes” that include “world internet usage” and references such as the Media Freedom Internet Cookbook. The entry also includes a link to the history of the internet at the bottom of the web page.

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