Universities ban students from citing Wikipedia in papers, and even the web site itself warns academics against referencing its articles, which any Internet user can alter at any time. But a new Canadian study has found that thousands of peer-reviewed papers in medical journals have cited Wikipedia in recent years — and the numbers of references are increasing fast.
The trend – apparent even in some of the world's most influential medical publications — raises the possibility of spreading misinformation and "could potentially affect care of patients," researchers from the University of Ottawa say in a paper just published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Articles in the BMJ itself have had 13 references to Wikipedia in the last decade, they note.
What struck the study authors most, though, is that the citations began to multiply in the last three years.
"The biggest surprise was the trend," said Dr. Sylvain Boet, an Ottawa Hospital anesthetist and health researcher who headed the study with Dr. Dylan Bould, another anesthetist. "It's exponential … It goes against all the principles of scientific reporting and referencing."
The problem is not only the accuracy of the information – which has actually been rated surprisingly high — but that Wikipedia articles are constantly changing, and tend to only summarize primary or secondary information sources, rather than containing original research themselves, the authors say.
Some of the "high-impact," or most influential, journals found to have had Wikipedia references could not be reached for reaction this week, or declined to comment on the findings.
Wikipedia has grown into the sixth most popular website in the world since its inception in 2001 – according to the Alexa Internet analysis service — with millions of articles that span the breadth of human knowledge.
Though each article can be edited by users, mistakes tend to be corrected by others relatively quickly, with one 2005 study rating a sample of Wikipedia entries similar in accuracy to Encyclopedia Britannica. What is more, health-related articles are overseen by an expert group, WikiProject Medicine.
Indeed, it is common for medical students and young doctors to turn to Wikipedia as an initial source, admitted Dr. Boet. The problem, though, is that there is no guarantee the information at any given time is, in fact, wholly accurate, and a Wikipedia entry cited by a journal paper one day may be quite different soon after, unlike a conventional article or book, he said.
That makes it harder for expert readers to assess research or, potentially, try to duplicate it themselves, said Dr. Boet.
Also, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors urges that journal authors reference original, primary research — like the results of a clinical trial — not someone else's summary of it. In fact, Wikipedia articles often do provide those kind of primary references, yet some researchers ignore them and still cite the Wiki article instead, the study notes. Doing so is likely "quick and easy," especially if a scientist has limited access to the original source, speculated Dr. Boet.
"The possibility for the spread of misinformation from an unverified source is at odds with the principles of robust scientific methodology and could potentially affect care of patients," his paper concludes.
In fact, Wikipedia makes much the same point itself, noting that "for many purposes, but particularly in academia, Wikipedia may not be an acceptable source." It reminds readers that "anyone in the world can edit an article, deleting accurate information or adding false information."
Some universities frown on even students using it as a source for papers. Cornell University, for instance, warns undergraduates that Wikipedia provides a rudimentary overview of subjects and that it is likely that professors "won't let you cite it in a scholarly research paper."
Dr. Boet and colleagues discovered more than 1,400 journal articles from 2001 to the beginning of 2012 that referenced Wikipedia. The numbers started to soar in 2011, and 1,600 or more Wikipedia-citing papers were published in each of 2012 and 2013.
They appeared in some of the world's foremost journals, including Nature, Science, The Lancet Infectious Diseases and The Annals of Internal Medicine.
The majority of Wikipedia citations were for definitions or descriptions of medical or scientific terms or concepts, followed by historical and statistical references, the study indicated.