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Image: GongTo / Shutterstock.com“Wiki it,” may be a common response when one is at a loss for knowledge.

According to the Pew Research Center, 53% of American Internet users consulted the site back in 2010, an increase from 36% in 2007. Globally, Wikipedia is the seventh most popular Website.  

Gene E. Likens, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a distinguished research professor at the Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, is warning against the accuracy of the site’s entries on politically controversial topics, such as acid rain and global warming.

“In the scientific community, acid rain is not a controversial topic. 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,” said Likens, who co-discovered acid rain and is a recipient of the National Medal of Science.

In a paper published in PLOS One, Likens and Adam M. Wilson, a geographer at the Univ. of Buffalo, monitored three politically controversial pages between June 2003 and July 2012. Pages included acid rain, global warming and evolution. The researchers compared the pages’ edit histories with four non-controversial scientific pages, including the standard model in physics, heliocentrism, general relativity and continental drift.

The researchers point to edits to the English language acid rain page beginning Nov. 30, 2011. “At 10:20 am, an anonymous editor removed the introductory paragraph which defined acid rain and replaced it with a statement calling acid rain ‘a load of (bull****).’ This change was quickly reverted, but the next day the paragraph was again deleted and replaced by “Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats,’” the researchers write.

Though algorithms meant to detect and revert such edits are available and continuously improved, the researchers say it’s doubtful such algorithms would detect all cases of vandalism. Over the acid rain page’s history, edits have been made nearly every day.

Similarly, “Wikipedia’s global warming entry sees (two to three) edits a day, with more than 100 words altered, while the standard model in physics has around 10 words changed every few week,” said Wilson. “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.”

The English language Wikipedia contains nearly 5 million articles, and, according to the researchers, receives 3 million edits per month.

“Wikipedia can be extremely dynamic; two students could obtain, within seconds, diametrically different information on a controversial scientific topic,” the researchers write.

Wikipedia acknowledges its limitations. “While some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish,” according to the site. “Because some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions.”

On a page regarding its academic use, the site states, “Wikipedia is not considered a credible source.”

Though Wikipedia’s scientific content is increasingly written with source material from scientific journals, the researchers recommend casting a critical eye on the content. Further, they recommend quantifying a user’s reputation when it comes to editing pages with significant controversy.

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