A new paper finds that politically controversial science topics are vulnerable to information sabotage.
Dr. Gene E. Likens is President Emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. He has been awarded a National Medal of Science, a Tyler Prize, and is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. As a co-discoverer of acid rain, he has monitored Wikipedia's acid rain entry since 2003; but when it comes to what’s what in the bastion of information, he is left baffled.
"In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic," he says. "Its mechanics have been well understood for decades. Yet, despite having 'semi-protected' status to prevent anonymous changes, Wikipedia's acid rain entry receives near-daily edits, some of which result in egregious errors and a distortion of consensus science."
Long ago students used libraries and printed encyclopedias; now a shocking 80 percent of U.S. students use Wikipedia for research papers. But, according to a paper published by Likens and a colleague, Wikipedia entries on politically controversial scientific topics can be completely inaccurate due to information sabotage.
Curious about how Wikipedia's acid rain entry compared to other science-based topics, Likens got together with Dr. Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the University of Buffalo, to analyze the edit histories for three politically controversial topics (acid rain, evolution, and global warming), and four non-controversial topics (the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity, and continental drift).
Looking over almost 10 years of data, Likens and Wilson analyzed daily edit rates, the mean size of edits (words added, deleted, or edited), and the mean number of page views per day. And lo and behold, politically controversial scientific topics were edited much more heavily.
"Wikipedia's global warming entry sees 2 to 3 edits a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few weeks, " Wilson notes. "The high rate of change observed in politically controversial scientific topics makes it difficult for experts to monitor their accuracy and contribute time-consuming corrections."
"As society turns to Wikipedia for answers, students, educators, and citizens should understand its limitations when researching scientific topics that are politically charged,” Linkins adds. “On entries subject to edit-wars, like acid rain, evolution, and global change, one can obtain – within seconds – diametrically different information on the same topic."
The authors observe that as Wikipedia becomes more developed over time, it seems that more of its scientific content is being based on established scientific journals as sources. But even though Wikipedia uses algorithms to help identify and correct blatantly malicious edits, it is unclear how the dynamic, changing content of politically-charged science topics might be managed.
In the meantime, if you use Wikipedia for research, be aware whether or not you're dealing with a rapidly-changing topic, that is, one that is politically controversial. Be sure to check the reputation of the contributing editors, and importantly, pay attention that source material comes from a legitimate place.
The paper was published in the journal PLOS ONE ... if you read about it on Wikipedia, be sure to check the sources.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this article we were contacted by the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that supports Wikipedia and its sister projects) alerting us to a statement they have issued about the study. In their defense, they note: "Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit. This open, collaborative model is what makes it one of the world’s most popular sources of information. It is also what makes Wikipedia reliable and accurate, as everyone can review changes and additions to its articles. Although vandalism and inaccuracies can occur, its community of volunteer editors has established mechanisms to ensure that the vast majority of inaccurate content is addressed within minutes." For the full statement, see the Wikimedia blog.