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Scientists use Wikipedia, too, according to new study

Wikipedia has a lot of power in the scientific world, new research shows.
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Wikipedia is important to the scientific world, a study found. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Remember when your teacher told you Wikipedia wasn’t a legitimate source?

Well, it’s a source for legitimate scientists, according to a new study.

Neil C. Thompson, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, and Douglas Hanley from the University of Pittsburgh, recently studied “the power of Wikipedia.”

The online encyclopedia is the fifth most used website in the world, according to Alexa Internet, a web traffic data site, and it has an impact on more than just middle school reports. In fact, it can have a “profound impact on scientific literature,” according to the study, published Wednesday. 

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It’s already clear that Wikipedia reflects science, according to the researchers, because the site has .5 to 1 million scientific articles, representing one article for approximately every 120 scientific journal articles. But they wondered if it also shaped the science.

“Do scientists read Wikipedia articles and encounter news ideas? Or perhaps scientists encounter ideas on Wikipedia that they are already aware of, but which are brought together in a way that influences how they think about them?” the study reads. “A further possibility is that a scientist could lack access to costly journals, and thus the appearance of an idea on Wikipedia could be that person’s only access to that scientific knowledge.”

For the study, Thompson and Hanley commissioned graduate students in chemistry to create new Wikipedia articles on scientific topics that weren’t mentioned on the online encyclopedia. Then, a random half was added to Wikipedia and the other half were not.

The articles that made it to Wikipedia got thousands of views per month, according to the study. Later, it was found that researchers writing scientific literature were more likely to use the words from those uploaded articles, rather than the ones that weren’t uploaded.

“Incorporating ideas into a Wikipedia article leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature,” the study reads. 

The practice may make science more inclusive to people who don’t have access to academic journals, since it’s a free source. Wikipedia doesn’t necessarily prompt new, cutting-edge research, the study notes, but has a substantial effect on follow-up scientific work.

“Our research shows that scientists are using Wikipedia and that it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing," Thompson said in a statement. "Wikipedia isn't just a record of what's going on in science, it's actually helping to shape science." 

 
 
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