What Wikipedia can tell us about the diffusion of science

wikipedia-researchAs social media has grown in reach and importance, the means by which the latest scientific research diffuses throughout society has come under the spotlight.  Central to this is the call for research to be made open access, but there is also an important role to play in communicating research to a wider audience.

Whilst I like to think I play a small part in that process, the likes of Wikipedia is quite probably a more commonly accessed resource than my own humble abode.

With a reasonable number of the latest research papers still gated however, how up to date is the venerable encyclopaedia on any given topic?

A recent paper (open access) asked just that.  Did Wikipedia have the best research behind its articles or merely the most accessible research?

The study, by researchers from the University of Chicago, first identified what actually constitutes a landmark paper in any given topic.  They then cross referenced this with the references used to compile Wikipedia articles on that topic.

The authors used 4,000 different journals across 26 different topics to compile their database of papers and identify the most important papers in each topic, but also whether they were gated or open access.

An analysis of the 50 biggest Wikipedias was then undertaken to see how frequently these papers are cited, with some 300,000 citations explored on the English Wikipedia alone.

The value of open access

“The odds that an open access journal is referenced on the English Wikipedia are 47% higher compared to closed access journals,” the authors say.

Does that mean that the accessibility of a paper is more important than its credentials?  Not necessarily.  The authors say that a highly reputable paper is likely to be referenced regardless of its access status.

They contend, therefore, that Wikipedia typically references high quality papers, even if open access studies appear to be disproportionately represented on the site.

The spread of open access

This is an important indication that open access research is growing in popularity, with significant knock-on benefits for the dissemination of academic research.

With journals traditionally charging anything from $15-50 to access a single article, it placed a significant barrier between intrepid explorers and the latest thinking.  Open access does away with that hurdle.

“Our research suggests that open access policies have a tremendous impact on the diffusion of science to the broader general public through an intermediary like Wikipedia,” the authors say.

Of course, there are still barriers to access in other forms, not least of which is the often obfuscate way in which many studies are written.  Whilst there may be a good reason for that, it doesn’t necessarily help in securing widespread dissemination of findings.

Open access is a big help in reducing the supposed decade that passes between research being released and it securing widespread adoption, but more needs to be done.

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One thought on “What Wikipedia can tell us about the diffusion of science

  1. Not massively surprising. For me, the onus has to be on the researchers to do more to spread the word about their research. Ensuring Wikipedia is up to date would seem a simple first step.

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