Does Your Professor Have a Wikipedia Entry? Congrats! It Means Nothing

Maybe they even wrote it themselves.
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Just who builds Wikipedia—and why? (Giulia Forsythe/Flickr)

Updated, 5 p.m.

Does your professor have their own Wikipedia page? Well congratulations!, a new study finds. That probably doesn’t mean anything important.

The Oxford University study, submitted for review to EPJ Data Science* late last week, found no meaningful correlation between an academic having their own entry on Wikipedia and being productive or prolific in their field. It also didn’t find a correlation between any major measure of Wikipedia success—the length of an entry, say, or the number of edits to that entry—and an academic’s prolificness.

In short, a scientist having their own Wikipedia entry means—to use a technical term—diddly squat.

To reach this conclusion, the study’s authors, Anna Samoilenko and Taha Yasseri, examined 400 biographical Wikipedia entries across four scientific disciplines: physics, biology, computer science, and “psychology and psychiatry.” They compared major metrics about those entries (such as page length) to the h-indexes of the researchers.

The h-index is an academic-specific measure, a way of measuring not just how many journal articles a researcher has written but how often each of those journal articles has been cited by other academics. By comparing an individual academic’s h-index to the average h-index for the field in which they work, you can understand how important an individual academic’s work is to their discipline. An important researcher’s work will be higher than the field’s average h-index.

Here’s one set of charts from the study. The x-axis in each of these histograms shows the h-index (sorted into piles), and the y-axis the number of Wikipedia articles. The black line represents the average h-index for researchers in a field:    

Samoilenko & Yasseri

Notice how the stacks are much lower on the right side of the black line? If Wikipedia represented academics as it sets out to do—that is, include entries only about “notable” academics—the histograms would be reversed, and the stacks would be higher on the other side of the black line. As the researchers write:

The analysis has shown that only a small percentage of researchers mentioned on Wikipedia (36% of Biologists, 31% of Computer Scientists, 24% Psychologists and Psychiatrists, and 22% Physicists) are notable according to the traditional means of evaluation.

The authors also examined, apart from their sample, how many of each of the four fields’ most important researchers (according to the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Research list) had their own Wikipedia entries. In every discipline, less than half of the most crucial researchers had their own pages. 

For Samoilenko and Yasseri, the study’s authors, the research contrasts with an intriguing finding from earlier this year : Unlike links to one’s research on Twitter, having a Wikipedia page essentially means very little for academics.

For lay readers—and for the researchers too—the study raises one further question: “Who is writing Wikipedia articles on academics?” Could it be—gasp—the academics themselves?

* The original version of this article misstated the affiliation of the researchers and the article to which the paper was submitted.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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