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Wikipedia Editing for Academic Credit: An Elective Course at UCSF Medical School

by Evans Whitaker, MD, MLIS
Education and Information Consultant for Medicine
UCSF Library and Center for Knowledge Management
San Francisco, CA

At the end of April, 2014, seven 4th year medical students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) received academic credit for editing a high importance Wikipedia (WP) healthcare article. The students were part of the second iteration of an elective first piloted five months earlier. The first iteration received extensive media attention from the New York Times, the Atlantic, NPR and others. Why the interest? Perhaps it has something to do with a combination of the mixed feelings many have about WP, fascination mixed with concern by the health-consuming public that the future healthcare providers of the U.S. are getting their information from WP, and that the “ivory tower” has embraced the concept.

WP is the most visited website for healthcare information in the world. Use of Wikipedia for healthcare information by healthcare trainees and professionals is known to be widespread. Yet healthcare educators generally (strongly) discourage Wikipedia use for healthcare information by their students, citing concerns about the reliability of the content of the free online encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone. But something interesting happened last year at UCSF. Due to the persuasive efforts of a 4th year medical student, resulting in introductory and editing sessions led by the visiting MD leader of WikiProject:Medicine (WPM), and the determined efforts of the now-convinced lead instructor, Amin Azzam, MD, of UCSF, the class was developed and launched in November, 2013 with five students. Azzam co-taught the course with two medical librarians, Lauren Maggio, from Stanford University’s Lane Medical Library, and Evans Whitaker from UCSF.

We are still analyzing course evaluation data collected from the April, 2014 session; but according to results from November, 2013, students were enthusiastic about the class and would recommend it to other students. All found the process of editing WP much harder than expected. Many factors played a role in this perception. It is hard to find good quality, recent articles. It is distressing to remove someone else’s hard work. The WP universe is complex and it takes time to learn to edit, and to interact with others in the WP community. Most mentioned anxiety about letting the world look at their less than perfect work. Students were impressed by WP efforts to make access to health information available to the least fortunate by contracts with cell phone providers (WP Zero YouTube video) and translation services (Translators Without Borders). Students wanted more oversight and contact with faculty.

Given its popularity, reach, and the fact that most healthcare students and providers are already using it for professional information, why not acknowledge that and do what we can to make the information WP contains the best possible? In editing, students learn the strengths and weaknesses of web-based information in an immersive way. They learn to write clearly for an audience with a wide range of reading abilities. You may be wondering if WP will be the equivalent of a “gateway drug” for bad information for the people who will be providing all of our healthcare in the future. But they already use it! Isn’t one of the lessons of the Internet age that information seekers must learn to efficiently find and then effectively evaluate information before using it in their lives and work? For students at UCSF, WP is used as a quick refresher or a rapid introduction to a topic. Information seeking may begin, but does not end with WP.

We believe this elective course added value to medical student education, by providing hands-on experience that is useful on many levels, by promoting information literacy skills, as well as simple clear writing ability. The elective requires students to go to the medical literature and find the most authoritative information. WP emphasizes use of secondary sources, and the WPM style and content guides explain that WP is an encyclopedia and that authors are not to synthesize information from primary sources, but instead to report the best/most current information from systematic reviews, meta-analyses, guidelines, and textbooks. The audience for WP is all educational levels, all languages, and all locations, with a wide range of technologies to access information. Students must think about their audience as they write. Thanks to the volunteer efforts of a global content company using commercial readability software, students receive feedback about their article at the beginning and end of the elective. Enhanced sensitivity to audience and intelligibility will benefit patients in their futures.

UCSF will continue to offer this course, with current plans to offer it twice a year. We hope to open it up to more students and to include students from other professional schools at UCSF and medical students from elsewhere. Please send any comments, questions, or concerns to Evans Whitaker.

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