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Why getting medical information from Wikipedia isn't always a bad idea

- Gwinyai Masukume and James Heilman

Wikipedia’s detractors will tell you that the site is inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable.

Many universities won’t allow students to use Wikipedia as a reference in essays or assignments. So it may come as a surprise to learn that it’s the most commonly used source for obtaining medical information online – even among medical students and doctors.

In fact, research has found that Wikipedia is more popular for this kind of information than reputable bodies’ websites – including those belonging to the World Health Organisation and the US’s Centres for Disease Control. In some settings, researchers have discovered, more than 90% of medical students and 50% of doctors turn to Wikipedia at some point.

But the academic medical community largely views Wikipedia with suspicion. This appears to be because the site doesn’t adhere to traditional peer-review mechanisms. There’s also no reward for a busy academic or medical practitioner who takes the time to improve existing Wikipedia pages and ensure that medical information is accurate. Some traditional journals and medical schools are starting to take Wikipedia more seriously, but we wanted to take things a step further by marrying Wikipedia and a traditional journal model. That’s how the Wikiversity Journal of Medicine was born.

Attitudes starting to shift

Most journals are expensive, hard to access and considered quite elite. They also aren’t read by very many people beyond academia and research houses. Research has suggested that medical journals need to increase their social impact by actively promoting knowledge sharing on sites like Wikipedia. This offers scope for people all over the world and from a variety of language groups to get more reliable information about health and medicine.

Some journals have heeded this call. PLOS’s Computational Biology, for instance, requires any author it publishes to also write a Wikipedia page on the topic. The journal article is static, referenced and unchanging. The Wikipedia page is changeable and invites contributions. Another journal, RNA Biology, requires the same approach.

There have also been experiments that have seen a Wikipedia article put through traditional medical journal quality control processes. It is then formally published in the journal and the original Wikipedia article is updated.

A few medical schools are embracing this new approach, too. The University of California San Francisco has introduced a course into its curriculum that teaches medical students how to contribute to Wikipedia.

These are all laudable efforts that point to a growing open-access movement in the world of scholarly communication.

Challenges and successes

The Wikiversity Journal of Medicine, which was launched in 2014, is hosted directly by the Wikimedia Foundation, the same organisation that hosts Wikipedia. It uses the same software, MediaWiki, which makes editing and processing very easy.

The whole service is free to authors and readers; as with Wikipedia our operating costs are covered by donations from around the world. The Wikiversity Journal of Medicine follows standard international best-practice guidelines for medical journals, drawing from such reputable bodies as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

Submission and acceptance follow the traditional medical journal processes, including peer-review by experts on the topic that’s being written about. One important difference is that authors have the option of submitting their article directly onto the journal’s site. This option was designed to enhance transparency and has been taken up by some authors. Others have been more hesitant, as other journals may consider a paper that’s on Wikiversity to be already publicly available and may reject it as a result.

The editorial board includes people from three continents: Africa, North America and Europe. Among them are the editor-in-chief, Sweden’s Dr Mikael Häggström. He’s made extensive image contributions to Wikipedia – for example, the site’s Ebola page features his images.

Dr James Heilman is another board member. He’s arguably the world’s leading expert on Wikipedia and medicine.

So far the journal has published 16 articles about diverse medical topics. We believe that the journal’s association with Wikipedia has created the false notion that anyone can edit an accepted journal manuscript. There are two versions of each published article. One is a PDF that cannot be edited and stands as the version of record. The second is a wiki and can be edited by anyone. The board monitors these edits.

The journal’s model has potential, though. A US physics professor, Guy Vandegrift, has established a second wiki-based journal. This, along with the broader debate around open access to medical information, suggests that the Wikiversity Journal of Medicine provides a feasible, scalable and sustainable model. Of course, it should not be the only source of information – in the same way that no single article in any format should ever be one’s only source. We hope that even if medical experts and researchers don’t contribute to the journal, they will start to take Wikipedia more seriously and, where necessary, to improve it so that people have access to more reliable information.

Such initiatives can, we believe, help to further address the profound inequities in the global knowledge economy that greatly hamper public health.

This article was co-authored with Dr Mikael Häggström, a medical doctor in Sweden who is also the editor-in-chief of the Wikiversity Journal of Medicine.

The ConversationGwinyai Masukume, Medical Doctor, Epidemiologist and Biostatistician: University College Cork, University of the Witwatersrand and James Heilman, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of British Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.