May 27, 2022

New Preprint: Science Is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial

The following preprint was recently posted on SSRN. The video embedded below was recorded on Wednesday, September 20, 2017.


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


Neil Thompson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Sloan School of Management
MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL)

Douglas Hanley
University of Pittsburgh


via SSRN
Posted on September 19, 2017


“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 control trial where we add new scientific content to Wikipedia. We find that the causal impact is strong, with Wikipedia influencing roughly one in every three hundred words in related scientific journal articles.

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 cost-effective way to advance science. We also find that such gains are equity-improving, disproportionately benefitting those without traditional access to scientific information.

Direct to Download Article and/or Read Online

From a MIT Sloan School of Management News Release

Neil C. Thompson, assistant professor of Technological Innovation at the Sloan School at MIT and a colleague, Douglas Hanley from the University of Pittsburgh, studied the power of Wikipedia, the 5th most used website in the world, and found that the website can have a profound impact on scientific literature.

Thompson and his colleagues commissioned graduate students in chemistry to create new Wikipedia articles on scientific topics missing from Wikipedia.  These newly-created articles were then randomized with half being added to Wikipedia and half being held back. The articles they uploaded got thousands of views per month, and later investigation revealed that researchers writing in the scientific literature were more likely to use the words from the uploaded articles than the ones held-back.

“Our research shows that scientists are using Wikipedia and that it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing,” says Thompson. “Wikipedia isn’t just a record of what’s going on in science, it’s actually helping to shape science.”

The authors find that, for a typical article in the field, Wikipedia is influencing one word in every three-hundred.  The effect is also stronger for developing counties where scientists may have less access to traditional science journals.  “Public sources of scientific information such as Wikipedia,” says Thompson. “Are incredibly important for spreading knowledge to people who are not usually part of the conversation.”

“We hope that funding agencies take note,” said Hanley, “this is a very cost-effective way to enhance the dissemination scientific knowledge.”

This study shows that increased provision of information in accessible repositories, such as Wikipedia, is an important way to advance science and make science more inclusive.

Wikimedia Research Showcase Presentation by Professor Neil C. Thompson at (September 20, 2017)

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.