Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Wikipedia Physics


Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is my favorite research tool. It's democratic (bordering on socialist), bigger and much more up to date than any print encyclopedia, and more reliably accurate than simply Googling something. Research in recent years, in fact, has shown that it's just as accurate as the Encylopedia Britannica, at least for science topics.

Despite all that, Wikipedia is not as good as it could be. A study published in the APS journal Physical Review E last month found that Wikipedia has similar structure to the World Wide Web and social networks like the network of human sexual contacts and the citation links between academic papers. That means that instead of broad, democratic topic selections being added to the wiki, most new articles are connected to older topics.

Network experts call this the "rich get richer" model.

As the wiki grows, we are going to get more and more information tied to what we already know. The researchers who did the analysis don't have a good explanation for it, but they point out that Wikipedia would be a better resource if we could find a way to get people to try start new topics instead of fleshing out what's currently posted.

I'm not so sure there is anything we can do to change human nature. Besides, Wikipedia is already so useful that I wouldn't dream of changing it. When I happen to find a problem, like something missing or innaccurate, I fix it. You should too.

In case you're wondering, the diagram here depicts the researchers' concept of how Wikipedia topics work. SCC stand for strongly connected concepts. The IN region indicates topics that connect directly to the SCC, the OUT region represents topics the SCC connect to and the worm-like tendrils are topics connected to the IN and OUT topics, but not to the SCC. The tendril connecting IN and OUT represents links between topics that are part of IN and OUT but not tied to the SCC.

Simple, isn't it? (maybe not)

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