Wikipedia on cancer accurate but hard to read

Cancer information on the website Wikipedia was equally accurate but less easy to read than the material on a website from the U.S. National Cancer Institute, a new study suggests.

Cancer information on the website Wikipedia was equally accurate but less easy to read than the material on a website from the U.S. National Cancer Institute, a new study suggests.

Wikipedia is often considered not a reliable source of information since anyone, from amateurs to medical specialists, can write and edit there.  
Errors were extremely rare on Wikipedia, but the way cancer information was presented was not patient-friendly, researchers say. (iStock)

But as the internet becomes a common source of cancer information, the quality and accuracy of the content available online has also become more important, researchers say.

In this week's online issue of the Journal of Oncology Practice, researchers compared the cancer information found on Wikipedia with the material from the patient section of the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ), a comprehensive peer-reviewed cancer database.

"There are a vast number of websites where patients can obtain cancer information," said study author Dr. Yaacov  Lawrence, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

"The purpose of this study was to answer one question: Is the cancer information on Wikipedia correct? Reassuringly, we found that errors were extremely rare on Wikipedia. But the way information was presented on PDQ is more patient-friendly," he said in a release.

Dense links

The main difference was the peer-reviewed site was written in plainer English than the wiki: a grade-level of nine versus university level. Researchers based that assessment on a check of word and sentence length.

While Wikipedia updates faster than PDQ, the links on Wikipedia take the user to more dense information, the study suggested.

Lawrence said he recommends that his patients start with PDQ since they are less likely to get lost in jargon and links, but that the sites are complementary.

The study's authors chose five of the most common cancers:

  • Lung.
  • Breast.
  • Prostate.
  • Colon.
  • Melanoma.

They also reviewed five less common ones:

  • Anal.
  • Vulvar.
  • Small intestine.
  • Testicular.
  • Osteosarcoma.

For each type of cancer, researchers compared information on the disease, such as symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and controversial aspects of care, for both sites. The content on both sites was vetted for accuracy against textbooks.

Both websites were accurate, with less than two per cent of the information on either site not matching the textbooks.

There was no difference between the sites in depth of coverage.

Both sites poorly discussed controversial aspects of cancer care, the researchers said.

They said the next step is to repeat the study with cancer patients to see if the difference in readability affects their understanding and retention of the information.