Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Call to Arms from Wikipedia Doctors

A group of doctors, scientists and medical students who write Wikipedia's medical articles and are involved in the Wikiproject Medicine have issued a "call to arms", calling on their peers to join them in their efforts to provide consumer-friendly medical knowledge free to the world at large.

In a paper published on January 31s, 2011 in the peer-reviewed, openly accessible Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR, the leading journal in health services research and health informatics), they argue that the possibilities to use Wikipedia as a tool for worldwide health promotion are under-appreciated, citing its unique global reach and examples of how the Internet encyclopedia is used in humanitarian projects [
Heilman et al. Wikipedia: A Key Tool for Global Public Health Promotion. J Med Internet Res 2011;13(1):e14].

The 19 authors are all members of Wikipedia's project that manages the health-related content. They note that both doctors and patients commonly seek health information online. Patients usually turn to search engines like Google for health-related queries, and previous research by these authors has shown that Wikipedia appears among those results in around 75% of cases.

Wikipedia's medical content broad and fairly accurate

Based on a review of existing studies of Wikipedia's medical content, the paper concludes that Wikipedia has articles on an incredibly wide range of medical topics with few factual errors, although most of Wikipedia's articles are only in the earliest stages of development and the readability needs to be improved.

"With more than 20,000 articles on health and more than 6,000 drug-related articles, there has never been more freely accessible health information on the Internet thanks to Wikipedia. But now we need more experts to expand these articles and to make them more accessible to the general public at the same time," says Dr. Michaël Laurent, the article's corresponding author.

Although critics have questioned Wikipedia's open editorial policy and examples of errors have been widely published, the authors point out that the encyclopedia has developed multiple strategies to prevent damage to its articles (including the use of vandalism fighting software, automated correction scripts, page protection, edit filters, blocking and banning).

Calling all doctors to contribute

Since WikiProject Medicine was founded by one of the authors (Dr. Jacob F. de Wolff) in April 2004, more than 200 editors (ranging from laypeople and students to doctors, nurses and professors) have registered at the virtual 'doctor's mess', where Wikipedia's medical content is discussed and coordinated. Over the years, the project has developed guidelines about writing good medical articles and finding reliable medical references. "Wikipedia lends itself very well to evidence-based medicine," the article notes.

The group suggests that physicians may contribute to Wikipedia for several reasons, including the intellectual challenge to summarize a medical topic for the general public and the satisfaction that comes from editing an important source of medical information, watching the articles grow and rise among Google results, often outperforming review articles in leading medical journals.

Heilman JM, Kemmann E, Bonert M, Chatterjee A, Ragar B, Beards GM, Iberri DJ, Harvey M, Thomas B, Stomp W, Martone MF, Lodge DJ, Vondracek A, de Wolff JF, Liber C, Grover SC, Vickers TJ, Meskó B, Laurent MR
Wikipedia: A Key Tool for Global Public Health Promotion
J Med Internet Res 2011;13(1):e14
doi: 10.2196/jmir.1589
PMID: 21282098

Source: Journal of Medical Internet Research (

This is a JMIR press-release and can be freely redistributed under the Creative Commons by-nd 3.0 License. This means you can copy & paste the text above into any medium you like (if paper based, you need to preserve the hyperlinks by spelling out the URLs), as long as you give credit to the source, create no derivative works (which includes editing or changing the press release), and include these license conditions, i.e. this license text must be included.


Penglish said...

There's a UK project - a wiki editable by registered medical practitioners only:

Gunther Eysenbach MD MPH said...

@Penglish - yes, and the article lists some other medical wiki projects, however, I think the thrust of the article is that we (as MDs) should concentrate our efforts on improving Wikipedia, as this is where the public turns to - a view I support 100%. I am skeptical that doctor-only-edited wikis are better than wikipedia's articles, but I am not sure if there is evidence for this - hey, I just got an idea for a research project, any students out there who want to take this on as a thesis topic?