Contentious science topics on Wikipedia subject to editing mischief

Politically charged issues such as global warming are prime targets for online sabotage

Wikipedia page

READER BEWARE  Wikipedia articles on politically contentious issues, such as acid rain (shown), are subject to editing sabotage. Users add nonsensical, obscene or incorrect text, researchers have found.


Acid rain is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet poo and cats.

No, not really. But that’s what people looking at Wikipedia’s article on acid rain could have read on December 1, 2011. 

An anonymous editor had tinkered with the text. Over the next few minutes, the silly sentence winked in and out of the article as editors wrangled over the wording.

The incident is just one example of the “edit wars” that rage on Wikipedia, the user-edited online encyclopedia. Articles on politically charged scientific topics, such as global warming, evolution and acid rain, are prime targets for sabotage, ecologists report August 14 in PLOS ONE.

These articles are edited more often and more extensively than articles on less polarizing scientific topics, such as continental drift and general relativity, the researchers found after analyzing revision histories.

When browsing Wikipedia, users should beware, the researchers conclude: The content is vulnerable to vandalism.

EDIT WARS Wikipedia science articles on politically charged topics get edited more frequently and more extensively than articles on less partisan subjects.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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