Neil C. Thompson: Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial


Monday, September 11, 2017, 11:30am to 1:00pm

Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial

“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 a Wikipedia article leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature. This paper documents this in two ways: correlationally across thousands of articles in Wikipedia and causally through a randomized experiment where we added new scientific content to Wikipedia. We find that fully a third of the correlational relationship is causal, implying that Wikipedia has a strong shaping effect on science.

Our findings speak not only to the influence of Wikipedia, but more broadly to the influence of repositories of scientific knowledge. The results suggest that increased provision of information in accessible repositories is a very cost-effective way to advance science. We also find that such gains are equity-improving, disproportionately benefitting those without traditional access to scientific information.

neilTNeil C. Thompson is the Assistant Professor of Innovation and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the Experimental Innovation Lab (X-Lab). He also an associate member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. His PhD was in Business and Public Policy at Berkeley, where he also did Masters degrees in Computer Science and Statistics. Professor Thompson has a masters in economics from the London School of Economics, and undergraduate degrees in Physics and International Development. Prior to academia, he worked at organizations such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Bain and Company, The United Nations, the World Bank, and the Canadian Parliament.