In the news
Cancer coverage, cognitive surplus, Wikipedia monarchy, and more
Wikipedia's cancer coverage is reliable and thorough, but not very readable
In a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, researchers compared Wikipedia's coverage of ten different cancer types with that of Physician Data Query (PDQ), a database of peer-reviewed, patient-oriented summaries about cancer-related subjects which is run by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI). In the abstract, the authors write:
- Due to a Wiki's lack of editorial control and formal structure, we hypothesized that the content would be less complete and less accurate than that presented on a formal, peer-reviewed web site.
However, when the content of each site was compared against pre-selected statements from standard oncology textbooks, it was found that
- For both web sites, inaccuracies were extremely rare: less than two percent of the information on either site was discordant with that presented in the textbooks. There was no difference between the sites in depth of coverage.
However, the readability in the study sample was better for the PDQ texts. As measured by a Flesch–Kincaid readability test (calculated from word and sentence lengths), they were written at a level accessible to ninth-grade high-school students, while Wikipedia articles were written at a level suitable for college students. Both Wikipedia and PDQ were judged to be under-reporting controversial aspects of cancer care.
The study was covered by LiveScience, The Washington Post, Time, The Independent, and the Los Angeles Times.
Wikipedia thrives on "cognitive surplus"
In an article titled Does the Internet Make You Smarter?, Clay Shirky, writing for the Wall Street Journal, mentions Wikipedia as an example of what can be accomplished when even a small amount of humanity's collective "cognitive surplus" is used to create, rather than merely consume, information: "Wikipedia took the idea of peer review and applied it to volunteers on a global scale, becoming the most important English reference work in less than 10 years. Yet the cumulative time devoted to creating Wikipedia, something like 100 million hours of human thought, is expended by Americans every weekend, just watching [television] ads. It only takes a fractional shift in the direction of participation to create remarkable new educational resources." Shirky, a member of the Wikimedia Foundations's advisory board, had first published this observation in a 2008 speech titled Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. It features in his upcoming book "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age".
Wikipedia compared to a market economy and to the UK
Smartmobs.com reported on a recent interview with Jimmy Wales about the governance model of Wikipedia. Wales talked "about the influence of Friedrich von Hayek’s essay The Use of Knowledge in Society on his initial thinking about Wikipedia" (in 2005, Wales had said that "Hayek's work on price theory is central to my own thinking about how to manage the Wikipedia project [and that] one can't understand my ideas about Wikipedia without understanding Hayek"). Wales compared Encyclopaedia Britannica's traditional way of building an encyclopedia to a centrally planned economy, and Wikipedia's to a market-based economy.
In a different comparison, Wales argued that Wikipedia’s governance system resembles the UK's constitutional monarchy more than the political system of the US, because the latter is based on a fixed constitution, while the British system largely consists of "unwritten rules and all kinds of interesting leftover questions that don’t get answered because they don’t need to be."
- Bigipedia, a BBC radio comedy show lampooning Wikipedia, has been given a second series, according to The British Comedy Guide. (See also the Signpost review of Episode 4 from the first season)
- In an article titled Lecturer relents on students' use of Wikipedia for research", the NZ Herald reports how Dr Deirdre Hart, a lecturer at Canterbury University, came from banning the use of Wikipedia in her class to handing out Wikipedia writing assignments to her students. Two other academics from New Zealand quoted in the article stated that concerns about the reliability of Wikipedia should not preclude its use, since other sources could be wrong too and any text should be read critically.
- The schedule for next month's Wikisym conference has been published, featuring several talks about Wikipedia.
- In an article titled "Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution", the New York Times reported from a "Backstage Pass" tour of Wikipedians at the British Museum, and about its "Wikipedian in Residence" program. See the coverage in this week's News and notes.