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How supporting Wikipedia editors is helping improve trust in science

15 November 2022 | 6 min read

By Lucy Goodchild van Hilten


Elsevier and the Wikimedia Foundation are collaborating to provide Wikipedia editors with trusted scientific content and training

Science is taking on the big issues the world is facing — climate change, COVID-19, plastic pollution — and those conversations help shape our behavior and therefore our contribution to the solutions. Wikipedia is a major source of the information people share, discuss and act on, with significant cumulative impact on people and the planet.

To support the dissemination of high-quality information, Elsevier started contributing to The Wikipedia Library opens in new tab/windowin 2015. Providing active Wikipedia editors free access to articles on ScienceDirect helps ensure the content on Wikipedia is backed by rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific information.

Elsevier is now working with the Wikimedia Foundationopens in new tab/window, the global nonprofit that supports Wikipedia, to extend this support, giving active Wikipedia editors access to all content on ScienceDirect along with editorial and reviewer training on Researcher Academyopens in new tab/window.

Informed editors help make Wikipedia a trustworthy source

Wikipedia is an important source of information for the general public, and journalists often use it as a source for the articles they publish, which readers can accept as fact and relay to others. In addition, Wikipedia offers a common starting point for students and academics exploring new topics.

Established in 2001, Wikipedia is “the largest and most-read reference work in historyopens in new tab/window.” It receives more than 18 billion page views every month, making it one of the most visited websiteopens in new tab/windows, surpassed only by search engines and the top social media platforms.

The English-language Wikipedia siteopens in new tab/window has more than 6.5 million articles, and an average of 15,000 new articles are added every month. This vast amount of content is maintained by tens of thousands of volunteer contributors and editorsopens in new tab/window. This open editing model has been questioned in the past, as everyone can edit its pages. However, research showsopens in new tab/window that Wikipedia is as reliable as more traditional encyclopedias.

This quality appears to be improving, too, because of the many thousands of editors who are actively working to ensure the information is correct and backed by science. As researcher and Wikipedian Dr Piotr Konieczny pointed out in a 2021 paper in opens in new tab/windowShe Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovationopens in new tab/window:

This phenomenon is embodied by the Linus Law, often expressed as, ‘Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.’ The law implies that when the number of reviewers increases, the number of errors decreases.

The more informed and skilled in critical evaluation the Wikipedia editors are, the higher the quality and reliability of the content they produce. An important element of being informed is access to trusted peer-reviewed sources. With access to scholarly content, the editors are better able to assess information and provide background research. Dr Anjna Harrar, a family physician from England who edits Wikipedia and whose interest in the Wikipedia Library is History and Medicine, said:

Having access to expert resources allows experienced Wikipedia editors to share reliable knowledge with the rest of the world … It is an innovative step to counteract misinformation.

These are just two of many researchers who are also a Wikipedians. Academics bring a wealth of scientific knowledge and skill to Wikipedia, helping ensure the content is high-quality. Institutions are increasingly engaging with the process too. We may see a rise in positions like Wikipedian-in-Residence, which Rachel Helpsopens in new tab/window holds at the Brigham Young University Libraryopens in new tab/window in Utah.

Elsevier journal editors who access training to become Wikipedians can have a positive impact on how people engage and understand their discipline from a different angle.

How Wikipedians can improve public knowledge of science

Wikipedians’ contributions can also serve as the knowledge the public needs to make more informed decisions and avoid information pitfalls. With the issue of vaccine hesitancy, for example, conspiracy theories have gained traction in populations where there is little objective knowledge about vaccines. Knowledge is an important factor in vaccination decisions. In a 2021 article in Social Science & Medicineopens in new tab/window, the authors explained:

The more people endorse conspiracy beliefs, the less they will adopt scientific consensus about vaccine benefits. Therefore, our results strongly suggest that conspiracy belief serves as a barrier for trust in health issues and adopting scientific knowledge. … These beliefs threaten public health even more, since adopting objective scientific knowledge is important for progress in behavior of the general population.

The negative influence of inaccurate information is not limited to the realm of public health. The term “fake news” came into widespread useopens in new tab/window in the 2010s, and major social media sites announced a crackdown on disinformation. Sites like YouTube and Facebook turned to the world’s biggest source of information: Wikipedia. They helped users identify fake news by suggesting information from Wikipedia articles. Writing in The Washington Postopens in new tab/windowNoam Cohenopens in new tab/window stated:

YouTube’s reliance on Wikipedia to set the record straight builds on the thinking of another fact-challenged platform, the Facebook social network, which announced last year that Wikipedia would help its users root out ‘fake news.’

The credibility of the content on Wikipedia therefore has an even wider impact through other major sites that rely on its information.

Empowering Wikipedia editors with content and more

The Wikipedia Libraryopens in new tab/window, a Wikimedia Foundation program, helps Wikipedia volunteer editors access trusted resources. For many years, the Wikipedia Library has built partnerships with publishers and other content providers around the world to arrange this access for Wikipedians.

As of 2022, The Wikipedia Library gives qualified editors access to more than 90 top subscription-only databases, including OECD, JSTOR, and ScienceDirectopens in new tab/window. To get automatic access to the Library, Wikipedians must meet four criteria:

  • 500+ edits

  • 6+ months’ editing

  • 10+ edits in the last month

  • No active blocks

Elsevier and the Wikimedia Foundation are working together to ensure that the editors who meet these criteria have free access to all ScienceDirect content. This will help to ensure that Wikipedia entries are based on the most up-to-date peer-reviewed research. Anne Kitsonopens in new tab/window, Managing Director of Cell Press and The Lancet at Elsevier, commented:

Our collaboration over the last seven years has aimed to support top Wikipedians with access to Elsevier’s peer-reviewed scientific literature in the hope that they can be a bridge to improved public understanding and trust in science.

Anne Kitson

There are approximately 150,000 links to Elsevier articles in Wikipedia, and these are constantly being refreshed and revised. Between June 2021 and June 2022, more than 14,000 Wikipedia editors linked to over 28,000 new articles on ScienceDirect.

To make the most of the content, an editor needs to know how to use it. Elsevier has extended its contribution to The Wikipedia Library program to provide access to editorial and reviewer training on Researcher Academy. Anne continued:

In this Collaboration between Elsevier and Wikipedia, we share the hope that both access and training help to improve the accuracy and trust in scientific Wikipedia articles for the lay public. The research community are the experts who can make that difference.

Learn how to become a Wikipedia Editoropens in new tab/window

About the Wikipedia Library and Wikimedia Foundation

The Wikipedia Libraryopens in new tab/window, a project of the Wikimedia Foundationopens in new tab/window, provides free access to research materials to improve editors’ ability to contribute content to Wikimedia projects.

The Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit organization that hosts Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia free knowledge projects. They state their vision as “a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. We believe that everyone has the potential to contribute something to shared knowledge, and that everyone should be able to access that knowledge freely.”


Portrait photo of Lucy Goodchild van Hilten


Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

Science Writer