Cancer information on Wikipedia: surprisingly reliable, but not so readable

Persons seeking information about cancer on Wikipedia will find data that is similar in accuracy and depth to that found on a peer-reviewed, patient-oriented cancer Web site, but the peer-reviewed Web site presents simpler, shorter versions of the information.

The popular Wikipedia is a wiki—that is, a collaborative Web site that can be freely edited by any contributor, expert or not. The lack of formal editorial control suggests that information on Wikipedia is inaccurate, but researchers from the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have found differently: They learned that inaccuracies were extremely rare, but that Wikipedia was written at a much higher reading level.

As the investigators reported in the Journal of Oncology Practice (2011;7[5]:319-323), they compared information for each of 10 cancer types appearing on Wikipedia with that appearing on the patient-oriented National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ) comprehensive cancer database. Medical-student volunteers scored Wikipedia and PDQ articles for accuracy and presentation of controversies, based on key factual statements for each cancer culled from standard oncology textbooks. The material covered epidemiology, etiology, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and controversial topics in cancer care.

Reassuringly, the results demonstrated that less than 2% of the information on either Web site was discordant with that presented in the textbooks, and both sites had equal depth of coverage, with relatively poor discussion of controversial aspects of cancer care: For example, each site scored poorly for coverage of options for prostate cancer.

However, one area of significant difference was that of reading level: PDQ was markedly more readable, garnering a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 9.6, compared with 14.1 for Wikipedia. Wikipedia was also found to rank higher in search-engine results and to update more quickly. Links embedded in the Wikipedia entries connected to more dense information than found on the PDQ site.

“The sites appear to be complementary, but I recommend to my patients that they start with PDQ, where they are less likely to get lost in jargon and hyperlinks,” noted study leader Yaacov, Lawrence, MD, adjunct assistant professor of radiation oncology at Jefferson Medical College, in a statement highlighting his team's results.

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