***Update*** (8/18): The Wikimedia Foundation has issued a statement in response to the study in question. Here’s just one passage:
Unfortunately, the study also jumped to conclusions about what this means for Wikipedia’s reliability, overstating findings and inferring facts not in evidence. Much of the press about the study has repeated the assertion that controversial articles are also more likely to be inaccurate, despite a lack of strong supporting evidence: the study only references a handful of anecdotal examples of inaccuracies. Instead, the study simply seems to confirm that the articles chosen as controversial are, in fact, controversial and thus frequently edited. One of the authors has since responded that they intended no claim about a relationship between higher edit rates and lower accuracy.
How reliable are Wikipedia’s entries on “controversial” scientific subjects?
Even though acid rain, evolution, and global warming are not controversial in the scientific community, they are frequently debated by politicians, right-wingers, and others who have no expertise in the subjects. On Wikipedia, that means the articles are subject to infiltration by trolls who want to inject their opinions where they don’t belong.
The researchers — Dr. Gene Likens of the University of Connecticut and Dr. Adam Wilson of the University of Buffalo — monitored those “controversial” subjects along with other scientific ones that are not generally called into question.
They looked at the revision history for all the topics, checking out the edit rates, edit sizes, and page views.
Articles on acid rain, global warming, and evolution were edited more times each day than the other four articles, and their edits involved larger changes, on average. For example, the global warming entry is edited two or three times on an average day, and each edit changes more than 100 words of the article; meanwhile, the entry for the standard model in physics only has about 10 words changed every few weeks.
What’s the significance of all that?
The higher traffic to these articles probably explains at least some of the difference in editing rates, but it also means that more people are turning to these articles for accurate information — and “edit wars” mean they may not be getting it.
That means, say the authors, “Wikipedia should not be used in academic citations without very careful consideration and scrutiny” because you don’t always know if what you’re reading is the scientific consensus. In fact:
… two students could obtain, within seconds, diametrically different information on a controversial scientific topic.
Obviously, no one should be using Wikipedia as the end all be all of human knowledge. The power of the website — allowing people to edit articles — is also its greatest liability. But when a topic is at the center of a lot of heated discussion, there’s even more reason to keep an open mind about what you’re reading and find more verification for it.
(Thanks to Rebecca for the link.)