Many people, students in particular, use the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to look for information on a range of subjects, but findings of a new research found that politically controversial scientific topics such as evolution, global warming and acid rain on the site may actually contain egregious errors.
Authors of the new study, which was published in the Public Library of Science(PLOS) Journal One on Aug. 14, said that such science topics are at risk of information sabotage on Wikipedia. Researchers found that entries on these subjects are being ransacked, which could be detrimental to scientific accuracy.
For their study, scientists from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies tracked Wikipedia entries on topics that are considered to be politically controversial and then compared these with others topics that are not such as the likes of the theory of general relativity, standard model in physics and continental drift.
By looking at the edit histories of the topics spanning 10 years to look for the mean size of edits, daily edit rates and daily page views, the researchers found that scientific topics that are politically controversial were edited more often than topics that are generally accepted. The controversial topics also have more views.
The researchers said that the high rate of change in these pages make it difficult for experts to monitor the accuracy of information and make the necessary but time consuming corrections, which could be potentially detrimental to scientific accuracy.
Based on their findings, the researchers said that Wikipedia science edits should be monitored. They also recommended that editors of these controversial pages need to have their reputations quantified and highlighted.
Since many young researchers use Wikipedia, the edit wars on certain science subjects pose concern. The researchers said that pages that are vulnerable to such kind of edit wars need to be automatically flagged up. They said that quantifying and making visible user reputations could help readers to better evaluate the content of a page.
Study researchers Gene Likens and Adam Wilson, from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, recommended that researchers should actually ignore Wikipedia as a source or at least look at the sources provided at the bottom of the articles.
"Users should be aware that content in Wikipedia can be extremely dynamic; two students could obtain, within seconds, diametrically different information on a controversial scientific topic. Educators should ensure that students understand the limitations and appropriate uses of Wikipedia, especially for controversial scientific issues," Likens and Wilson wrote in their study.
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