Wikipedia is the leading source of scientific information
Photo: Flickr / AJC1 (CC)

Eduard Aibar, director of the UOC research group Open Science & Innovation (OSI), and Marta Aymerich, the Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research at the UOC, have today presented the results of the first study on the scientific content of the Spanish language version of Wikipedia. The study, which was supported by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT), constitutes the most extensive and in-depth research conducted to date anywhere in the world, on this kind of content, in any of the online encyclopaedia’s language versions. The event, held at the UOC’s headquarters in Barcelona, was attended by Roderic Guig, a researcher from the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), associated with the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB), and lex Hinojo, ambassador and project manager at Amical Wikimedia.

The purpose of the research, "Analysis of the scientific content of the Spanish language version of Wikipedia", was to examine all the articles in the encyclopaedia on topics that clearly fell within a scientific discipline in different fields of knowledge, from natural sciences through to social sciences and engineering. The study was based on predetermination, using a semi-automatic process, of a body of 60,108 articles on scientific and technological subjects.

The project was based on four key factors: 1) an analysis of quality; 2) a study of the presence of Spanish scientific input; 3) a study of the editors and the editing process of articles on scientific subjects; and 4) an analysis of the handling of controversial scientific issues.

As a result of its research, the UOC has published a guide of recommendations and best practices for editing scientific content on Wikipedia aimed at scientists, research centres, universities and scientific associations.

Main conclusions of the research

The researchers in the OSI group – Eduard Aibar, Juli Minguilln, Maura Lerga, Josep Llads, Antoni Meseguer and Peter Dunajcsik – summed up their main conclusions in the following points:

  • "The research project examined the main international studies carried out to date on the online encyclopaedia, which showed that Wikipedia is the leading source of scientific information", explained Aibar. The figures from the most recent survey of social perception of science in Spain by the FECYT (2015), for example, showed that 32.7% of Spanish Internet users went to Wikipedia as a first resort to find scientific information. The research also highlighted the tremendous capacity of Wikipedia to get people actively involved in the process of transferring scientific knowledge to the general public.
  • The quality and reliability of Wikipedia’s content has been one of the most hotly-debated issues both socially and in the media. The study evaluated this issue by analysing the sources of information that editors used to write their articles. Some 73% of the 1,160 most important scientific journals in every field were quoted in scientific articles in the Spanish version of Wikipedia. "This demonstrates that the editors use high quality primary sources – not secondary or other sources – to write their articles, and this is undoubtedly a clear guarantee of their quality and reliability", asserted the director of the research group.
  • Some 15% of the encyclopaedia’s articles in Spanish deal directly with science- or technology-related topics.
  • These articles reflect most of the key concepts of each scientific discipline. Around 80% of the concepts that appear in the glossaries of conventional university manuals have a corresponding article in Wikipedia.
  • The distribution by subject matter of these articles in the different fields of science very strongly matches the global distribution of scientific output.
  • The educational level of the editors is significantly higher than that of the average person and 74% of them have university degrees. Most of them are men (90%) and they complain about the difficulty of consulting scientific literature on the Internet free of charge (most scientific journals require some form of advance payment).
  • In spite of the healthy situation of science on the Spanish language version of Wikipedia, scientists themselves are poorly represented on the platform. Given that only a minority of these scientists edit content, references to scientific articles by Spanish authors are not very common and in fact Spanish scientific institutions (primarily universities and research centres) are cited very rarely compared with our European neighbours. "Only half of the most important research centres have their own entry in Wikipedia", notes Aibar.
  • The image of science offered by the encyclopaedia is very close to that of contemporary science. The fact that the platform is mainly written and edited by people who are not professional scientists, overlooking the possibility that occasional errors may be made (though in actual fact no more than in conventional encyclopaedias), does not give a biased or distorted image of science or lead to the presence of pseudoscientific topics or viewpoints.
  • Wikipedia is evidently a very useful tool for teaching science at every educational level, including universities. The higher-quality articles often offer an excellent gateway or very useful introductory text for any student. And in the case of university students, it gives them the chance to explore some of the most important primary scientific literature in each case. Indeed, previous studies by this research team showed that around 70% of university lecturers consult the site regularly – not so much for articles in their own specialist area, as to search for information on subjects either related to, or further removed from, their own experience.

A guide of recommendations and best practices for editing scientific content in Wikipedia

The UOC research group has designed a guide of recommendations and best practices to encourage the involvement of scientific entities (research centres, universities and scientific associations) in editing and improving the scientific content of Wikipedia.

The guide proposes five basic strategies for the scientific community’s involvement and provides real-life examples of each one:

  • Improving articles through activities with students on their courses. Over the last few years, many university professors worldwide have started using Wikipedia openly as a teaching tool. They have encouraged individual or group activities among students to create new articles and improve or correct existing ones. These experiences have generated satisfactory results and a significant improvement in various basic skills, as well as having a positive influence on student motivation.
  • Establishing agreements between scientific associations, universities, research centres and Wikimedia. To date, most of these agreements have been in the United States, although it is hoped that similar agreements can be reached in other countries in the coming years. Any institution, research centre or scientific association in Spain that wishes to establish agreements or arrangements of this type can contact the Spanish chapter of Wikimedia for the Spanish version, or the other versions of Wikipedia for the other languages spoken in Spain: Asturian, Catalan, Galician, etc.
  • Contributing to Wikidata, the sister project of Wikipedia – along with Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, etc. This is the big open knowledge database edited by the multilingual community of Wikipedians with the aim of storing data in a centralized repository where it can be consulted and viewed dynamically in the different language versions of Wikipedia. Wikidata is based entirely on free software and open content and has a community of more than 16,000 contributors worldwide.
  • Organization of Meetups. These are activities in which a group of Wikipedians meet up physically somewhere – often a library – to broaden as much as possible a series of articles in the encyclopaedia on a specific topic or to create new articles in that particular field.
  • WikiProjects. A WikiProject is a special page on Wikipedia where a group of contributors work together as a team to improve articles on a particular topic or activity. There are currently 263 WikiProjects underway on the Spanish version of Wikipedia.



Photograph of Eduard Aibar Puentes

Eduard Aibar Puentes

Expert in: Online collective production (Wikipedia, open-source programming, open science); interactions between technology and society; sociology of science; e-government.

Knowledge area: Science, technology and society studies.

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