Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial

Authors : Neil Thompson, Douglas Hanley

“I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” – Charles Darwin, 1865.

As the largest encyclopedia in the world, it is not surprising that Wikipedia reflects the state of scientific knowledge. However, Wikipedia is also one of the most accessed websites in the world, including by scientists, which suggests that it also has the potential to shape science. This paper shows that it does.

Incorporating ideas into Wikipedia leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature. We provide correlational evidence of this across thousands of Wikipedia articles and causal evidence of it through a randomized control trial where we add new scientific content to Wikipedia.

We find that the causal impact is strong, with Wikipedia influencing roughly one in every ∼830 words in related scientific journal articles. We also find causal evidence that the scientific articles referenced in Wikipedia receive more citations, suggesting that Wikipedia complements the traditional journal system by pointing researchers to key underlying scientific articles.

Our findings speak not only to the influence of Wikipedia, but more broadly to the influence of repositories of scientific knowledge and the role that they play in the creation of scientific knowledge.