Dec. 6, 2012 at 5:29 PM ET
From socialist hair to serial killers, and all the Justin Bieber-related topics in between, Wikipedia does a fine job feeding fun facts to us ADHD Internet surfers looking to distract ourself with some quick arcana. But when it comes to serious learning — the stuff that maybe you were relieved to get a C+ on back in school — Wikipedia may be leaving us in the dust. That's the preliminary finding from a Japanese study presented at the Conference on Information and Knowledge Management in Maui.
"Although Wikipedia articles are frequently listed by average search engines on top ranks, they are often too difficult for average readers searching (for) information about difficult queries," reads the abstract of the study. To arrive at this conclusion, researchers compared corresponding entries on English Wikipedia, Simple Wikipedia (a dumbed-down version of the main site), and that Willy Loman of collected facts, Encyclopedia Britannica.
The rogues' gallery of difficult reads, according to the research team, includes entries under Computing, Economics, History, Literature, Mathematics, Philosophy, and the worst of the worst, Biology and Chemistry.
Eleven years into its existence — with more than 4.1 million articles in its English version alone and 23 million worldwide — Wikipedia has become in some ways more of a creative outlet for its contributing know-it-alls than a resource for the the average human looking to lose his or her ignorance.
"Curious but not unexpected," is how Andrew Lih, author of "The Wikipedia Revolution," reacted to the study's results. He pointed to the study called out in the November 2012 Wikimedia Research Newsletter, where it was compared to similar findings.
The thing to understand about Wikipedia, is that "it's always been a community of eventualism," Lih told NBC News — citing the Wikipedia community's self-described tendency to focus "on the eventual value of Wikipedia in the long-term rather than the immediate value."
"The article may not be great at the time its posted, but with more eyeballs and input, it gets better, more accurate, and of higher quality," said Lih, who is also a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.
That's the benefit of allowing pretty much anybody — along with a dedicated team of paid and volunteer moderators — edit Wikipedia, a site that bore the early motto, "There is no deadline."
"The counterpoint," Lih said, "is that readability may go down."
Not readability among the qualified experts obsessing over the entry on, I dunno, Fermat's Last Theorem, but readability among those of us who can't even do math in our heads (shut up!), but want to get an idea of what that's all about because Picard and Riker were blathering about it in that one "Star Trek: The Next Generation" rerun.
For us, the Fermat's Last Theorem, and all related Wikipedia entries for that matter, might as well be in Greek, or in some other foreign language we probably don't know.
Reading is easier on Simple Wikipedia, but Lih doesn't consider it useful to compare the two. "The Simple Wikipedia doesn't have a high standing in the Wikipedia community," he said, adding that its purpose was never fully established. Is it for people under the age 14, or just a simpler version of complex articles? "There's never been a clear idea for it, other than a much simpler read."
How much simpler?
Here's the first paragraph from Wikipedia's entry on the Sun:
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields. It has a diameter of about 1,392,684 km, about 109 times that of Earth, and its mass (about 2×1030 kilograms, 330,000 times that of Earth) accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Chemically, about three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is mostly helium. The remainder (1.69%, which nonetheless equals 5,628 times the mass of Earth) consists of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon and iron, among others.
And here's what Simple Wikipedia says:
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is seen in the sky and gives light to the Earth. When the Sun is in the sky, it is day. When the Sun is not in the sky it is night. The planets, including Earth, go around it.
Note how Simple Wikipedia's first paragraph on the Sun doesn't even require footnotes and sourcing ... because, duh.
Oddly enough, not all of the egg-heady disciplines were accused of excessive difficulty. A notable exception was Computing, whose articles scored well in both how sentences were structured and how much new vocabulary was foisted upon the reader. (We'll just pretend there's no bias in the fact that a computer algorithm made this judgment call — just sayin'!)
Regardless of how deep this study goes, or how spot-on it is, you definitely shouldn't need AP classes to read and understand Wikipedia. It's not hard to understand how Wikipedia got that way, but it's a little trickier trying to see where a solution will come from.
"It's harder to gauge readers," Lih said. "They don't really stick around and comment." The researchers suggest offering them a way to flag "poorly comprehensible content." Maybe asking readers to pour out their feelings following a dense brief on covalent bonds is too much to ask, but how about an "I don't understand!" button?