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Emerging Technology from the arXiv

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Why Wikipedia + Open Access = Revolution

The way scientific information diffuses through the knowledge economy is changing, and the first evidence from Wikipedia shows how.

  • July 2, 2015

There is a quiet revolution occurring in the way science diffuses into the public consciousness. One of the most significant aspects of this is Wikipedia, the crowdsourced encyclopedia that has rapidly become the first port of call for anyone researching more or less any scientific subject.

But there’s a problem. Many of the world’s highest quality and highest impact journals sit behind expensive paywalls that prevent all but the most privileged and well-resourced from gaining access. So it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Wikipedia editors tended to ignore these high quality papers in favor of articles that were easier to access.

That raises an important question. Do Wikipedia entries really reflect the best scientific evidence available?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Misha Teplitskiy and pals at the University of Chicago who have worked out what constitutes an important paper in the world of science and then checked to see whether this is reflected in the references that appear in Wikipedia entries.

Teplitskiy and co begin by analyzing the citation patterns in over 4,000 peer-reviewed journals in 26 different research fields ranging from dentistry and medicine through physics and astronomy to psychology and the social sciences.

That allowed them to identify the most heavily used journals with the greatest impact factors. Crucially, they also worked out which of these were paid-for journals and which were open access.

They then studied articles in the 50 largest Wikipedias to find out where the references point. For example they looked at over 300,000 cite-journal tags in the English Wikipedia alone.

The results make for interesting reading. “The odds that an open access journal is referenced on the English Wikipedia are 47% higher compared to closed access journals,” say Teplitskiy and co.

But this doesn’t imply that Wikipedia editors are blindly choosing open access articles at the expense of more important papers. The team says that a journal’s high impact status also significantly increases the chances that it will be referenced, regardless of whether it is open or closed access.

So Wikipedia generally provides links to high quality scientific articles, even though open access ones are disproportionately represented.

That’s an interesting and important result. Just a few years ago, the only way to access scientific articles was through expensive subscriptions to scientific journals. A single scientific article sourced in this way can cost $50 or more.

That’s a powerful dissuading force for any mere mortal hoping to catch up on the latest breakthroughs. Instead only those with access to top academic libraries can indulge—in other words professional scientists at the world’s top institutions.

But open access has changed all that. Open access publishing has changed the way scientists communicate with each other but Teplitskiy and buddies have now shown that its influence is much more significant. “Our research suggests that open access policies have a tremendous impact on the diffusion of science to the broader general public through an intermediary like Wikipedia,” says Teplitskiy and co.

That’s something that observers have imagined but without good evidence to back them up. It means that open access publications are dramatically amplifying the way science diffuses through the world and ultimately changing the way we understand the universe around us.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1506.07608 : Amplifying the Impact of Open Access: Wikipedia and the Diffusion of Science

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