Wikipedia cancer info accurate but hard to understand
■ Entries in the online, user-written encyclopedia are geared toward a far higher reading level than a peer-reviewed, patient-oriented site.
By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Oct. 3, 2011
People visiting Wikipedia looking for information on cancer are likely to find solid, factual material. But they may have a difficult time reading and understanding it, according to a study in the September Journal of Oncology Practice.
For the study, researchers compared cancer information found on the open, collaborative Wikipedia site to the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query, a peer-reviewed, patient-oriented website written by professionals.
Researchers looked at coverage, accuracy and readability. They found that although information on Wikipedia was just as accurate as that found on the professionally edited site, it is far less readable, because the content is generally written at a far higher reading level.
The researchers, from the University of Pittsburgh, Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, found that articles on the NCI site were written at a Flesch-Kincaid reading score of 9.6. The Wikipedia content averages a score of 14.1. The score represents the expected grade level necessary for understanding the material.
Researchers said that although both articles attempted to explain technical words by providing a hyperlink to an outside source, the NCI pages linked to a plain English dictionary while Wikipedia often linked to other highly technical articles.
"Overall, the study was good news," said study co-author Dr. Yaacov Lawrence, director of the Center for Translational Research in Radiation Oncology at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel. "Even Wikipedia gave good info, but may be a little difficult to understand."
The study noted that although several other studies said patients who look for information online have above-average educations, "many patients with cancer have impaired cognitive function."
The authors said the study's findings were important because of Wikipedia's growing prominence in online searches. To put the results of the research in context, researchers looked at which sites are favored by Google when researching a variety of cancer types. Though the NCI site and Wikipedia typically appeared in the top 10, Wikipedia appeared above the NCI site in more than 80% of the searches.
The authors suggest that more research is needed to understand which patient- and website-related factors determine optimal understanding and absorption of information. "Such research will help in the design of the next generation of Web-based information systems," the authors wrote.