A team of scientists has just confirmed what should have been fairly obvious: Wikipedia is not a consistently reliable source of scientific information.
The study, published this week in the journal PLoS One, urges readers to be aware that Wikipedia is constantly under construction and “vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans,” including “edit wars” between people who care and people who actually know what they’re talking about. This results in a level of inconsistency that makes scientists nervous and doesn’t serve the public interest.
To nobody’s surprise, Wikipedia articles on topics that were politically but not scientifically “controversial” were reported to be most prone to changes. The authors tracked the edit histories of seven such pages to monitor the rate they were changed. The page on global warming, for example, was changed by about 110 words per day, whereas the page on the standard model in physics only changed by about 10 words per day. These changes, the authors say, make it hard for experts to ensure that the public is always receiving relevant information.
In their paper, the authors describe how the introduction to the page on acid rain was replaced with “Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats.” Two days later, the section title “Chemistry in cloud droplets” was changed to the more succinct “Blowjobs.” The authors hope that readers recognize the “jabberwocky” tone of such edits and take such articles with a grain of salt. The authors don’t find any of this funny.
And, to be fair, the authors have a real reason to be concerned: Wikipedia is the sixth-most popular website in the world and has become the go-to resource for people seeking quick information. This becomes a problem when it’s used as a definitive source rather than a starting point. Though silly, what this paper does is drive home the point that users need frequent reminders that the information Wikipedia provides, though convenient, isn’t always sourced responsibly.