2 Comments »Posted on Tuesday 1 June 2010 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Wikipedia may be your first choice for trivial information, but would you trust it with your life? Surprisingly, researchers from Pennsylvania have found that the community-built encyclopaedia measures up on both accuracy and depth when compared to a peer-reviewed information service for cancer patients – it’s just not very well written.

Doctors often caution their patients against seeking medical advice online, fearing that the information they find could be inaccurate. After all, anybody can create a website that claims to provide expert knowledge, but how can you be sure they’re telling the truth?

You’d think the problem would be even worse on a website that anyone can edit, but Wikipedia turns out to be just as accurate as the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query (PDQ), which was specifically created to cater to patients needs.

Yaacov Lawrence, an assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University, selected the key facts about ten types of cancer from standard textbooks and ask medical students to compare them against Wikipedia and PDQ. They found that less than 2% of the information of both sites was inaccurate, and the depth of coverage was comparable.

The key difference in the texts was revealed by a readability test, similar to those found in Microsoft Word. Analysing the text of both websites showed that while PDQ was suitable for 14-year-olds and up, cancer articles on Wikipedia are at a university student’s level.

“PDQ’s readability is doubtless due to the site’s professional editing, whereas Wikipedia’s lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing,” said Lawrence. “Overall our results are reassuring: on the one hand Wikipedia appears to be extremely accurate, on the other, the resources invested in the creation and upkeep of the PDQ are clearly justified.”

Of course, just like Wikipedia, this research could be subject to change. Perhaps some knowledgeable science communicators will take it upon themselves to whip up the cancer articles into something a little more readable? Go ahead and hit that “Edit” button…


  1. 2 Comments

  2. You have inspired me to go do some editing/copying and pasting from my day job ;)

    By Katie Goates on Tuesday 1 June, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  3. It’s remarkable how the wisdom of crowds has actually worked so well with wikipedia – I’ve rarely encountered blatant errors, and when I have, they’ve been trivial or obvious (such as personal attacks on the pages of public figures).

    It’s just a bit frustrating when one hits the limits of wiki-knowledge… I guess the sediment chemistry community haven’t taken to wiki editing as much as I’d like!

    By David on Wednesday 16 June, 2010 at 8:39 am

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