Content Volatility of Scientific Topics in Wikipedia: A Cautionary Tale

PLoS One. 2015 Aug 14;10(8):e0134454. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0134454. eCollection 2015.

Abstract

Wikipedia has quickly become one of the most frequently accessed encyclopedic references, despite the ease with which content can be changed and the potential for 'edit wars' surrounding controversial topics. Little is known about how this potential for controversy affects the accuracy and stability of information on scientific topics, especially those with associated political controversy. Here we present an analysis of the Wikipedia edit histories for seven scientific articles and show that topics we consider politically but not scientifically "controversial" (such as evolution and global warming) experience more frequent edits with more words changed per day than pages we consider "noncontroversial" (such as the standard model in physics or heliocentrism). For example, over the period we analyzed, the global warming page was edited on average (geometric mean ±SD) 1.9±2.7 times resulting in 110.9±10.3 words changed per day, while the standard model in physics was only edited 0.2±1.4 times resulting in 9.4±5.0 words changed per day. The high rate of change observed in these pages makes it difficult for experts to monitor accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections, to the possible detriment of scientific accuracy. As our society turns to Wikipedia as a primary source of scientific information, it is vital we read it critically and with the understanding that the content is dynamic and vulnerable to vandalism and other shenanigans.

MeSH terms

  • Encyclopedias as Topic*
  • Internet
  • Publishing / standards*
  • Science

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/M9.FIGSHARE.1397533

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.