Wikipedia articles shape academic language, MIT study finds

Image credit: dreamstime

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study has found that recently published Wikipedia articles subtly shape the language used in academic papers published subsequently.

From school assignments to PhD theses, students are warned to avoid Wikipedia. Anybody in the world can edit the enormous online encyclopaedia, which has brought up questions about the extent to which its content can be trusted: politicians and other high-profile figures have been reported to have edited their own pages to add more flattering content.

“Academia is fighting Wikipedia,” Professor Neil Thompson, innovation expert at MIT, told Nature.

However, Professor Thompson’s recent study into the influence of Wikipedia on research papers would suggest that academia is fighting a losing battle. Professor Thompson and his co-author commissioned PhD candidates to write 43 articles on subjects in chemistry too specialised to have their own Wikipedia pages yet.

Soon afterwards, they published half of these articles to Wikipedia. Just over two years later, the researchers searched Elsevier’s highest-impact chemistry journals and – checking the frequency of words across these journals – found that the language of the Wikipedia articles had bled subtly into the academic texts.

Approximately one in every 250 words was a new term influenced by the technical Wikipedia articles and another one in every 300 words was found to be otherwise influenced by the articles.

This influence was stronger in lower-impact journals and lower-income countries, suggesting that authors in settings with limited resources may rely more on Wikipedia for their background reading.

Despite its reputation for being not entirely trustworthy, Wikipedia is one of the most popular websites in the world (#5 on the Alexa ranking of the world’s most visited websites) and – while researchers may avoid citing it – it would seem that they are no less likely to be influenced by it than anybody else.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them