Study finds cancer information on Wikipedia is accurate, but not very readable

Jun 01, 2010

It is a commonly held that information on Wikipedia should not be trusted, since it is written and edited by non-experts without professional oversight. But researchers from the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson have found differently, according to data being presented at the 2010 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Reassuringly, they found that information found on a wiki was actually similar in accuracy and depth to the information on a peer-reviewed, patient-oriented cancer web site. There is one caveat, however: they found that the information on the peer-reviewed site was written in plainer English.

Researchers lead by Yaacov Lawrence M.D., assistant professor of at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, compared the cancer information found on Wikipedia with the information found on the patient-oriented section of the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ), a comprehensive peer-reviewed cancer database.

"There are a vast number of web sites where patients can obtain cancer information," Dr. Lawrence said. "The purpose of this study was to answer one question: Is the cancer information on Wikipedia correct? Reassuringly, we found that errors were extremely rare on Wikipedia. But the way information was presented on PDQ is more patient-friendly."

Dr. Lawrence and his colleague Malolan Rajagopalan, a medical student from the University of Pittsburgh, started by choosing ten cancer types and selecting key factual statements for each cancer from standard oncology textbooks. The material covered epidemiology, etiology, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and controversial topics in cancer care.

Medical student volunteers examined the PDQ and Wikipedia articles against the prepared statements. The web pages were printed out to ensure that each individual looked at the same version of the articles. Standard algorithms were used to calculate readability based upon word and sentence length.

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. Both sites poorly discussed controversial aspects of cancer care. But the PDQ site was notably more readable: whereas PDQ was written at a level suitable for a 9th grader, Wikipedia was written at a level suitable for a college student. This difference was highly statistically significant.

"PDQ's readability is doubtless due to the site's professional editing, whereas Wikipedia's lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing," Dr. Lawrence said. "Overall our results are reassuring: on the one hand appears to be extremely accurate, on the other, the resources invested in the creation and upkeep of the PDQ are clearly justified."

The next step is to repeat the study with cancer patients to truly determine how this difference in readability impacts upon patients' understanding and retention of information, Dr. Lawrence said.

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Squirrel
not rated yet Jun 01, 2010
Wikipedia should have been compared to other encyclopedias such as Britannica. Patient-oriented web sites are more comparable to leaflets than encyclopedia articles or the Simple English Wikipedia articles. These do not seem to have been looked at.
fixer
not rated yet Jun 01, 2010
Wiki is the peoples knowledge base, usually containing personal experience and facts that are current now rather than old knowledge based on older knowledge that the medical community tends to rely on.
Wiki's advantage is it includes factual information on "alternative" therapies which are rarely, if ever, included in "official"texts.
gmurphy
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
I think this captures one of the biggest problems with wikipedia, relatively simple concepts are often cloaked in complexity by presenting the concept from the perspective of a much more abstract, much more inaccessible field.
fixer
not rated yet Jun 02, 2010
The problem is that doctors speak and write in latin to keep their knowledge "in the club" but people want it in plain text so they can understand it.
Modern medicine is crafted by biomedical engineers who also speak their own language and they are the ones that fill the pages of wiki.
No wonder it's confusing.