Med school students assigned to improve most-used medical Wikipedia entry


Wikipedia is a lost cause. A small group of people controls all content there. They’ve been around for years and they patrol pages against any changes they don’t like. It only really takes two people to object to your change to keep it out, and since they’ve already driven away anyone who disagrees, most pages have not changed significantly for years, even when there are obvious errors.

These medical entries the prof is talking about are usually several years old. Are these students the first people to see they need improvement?


Based on…what?

The first sentence of Cory’s first link is

Wikipedia is the leading single source of healthcare information for patients and providers, according to a report on online engagement by IMS Health.

To paraphrase a certain guy, “you don’t improve health literacy with the wiki you want, but the wiki you have.”


It is a bit scary that wikipedia is the main medical text. In theory it is a great idea as it is free, widely accessible and easily up datable. But one would hope it is accurate.

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The scariest thing is if the normal wikipedia rules for sources are being held to. How many definitive medical texts are available online for referencing?

Given how difficult it is to find quality medical and scientific journalism, the requirement for online sources would seem to bias things away from accuracy.


“… and so that is the cure for this otherwise fatal disease (citation needed)” :slight_smile:


Based on my many years editing and many thousands of edits to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the leading source for stuff because Google puts Wikipedia links near the top of the first page of search results. Regardless of links.

Want to take a guess as to the ratio of articles to editors? Here’s the statistics page, for your perusal. Compare what it is now to January 2007. 3 times the amount of articles, 2/3 the amount of editors. Who do you think are the people who hang around?

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Regardless of what you think of the editorial quality of wikipedia and the infighting that goes on there, two facts remain.

  1. It’s the most frequently used source of medical information for

  2. Dr. Azzam, with 5 medical students taking an elective, is trying to
    improve that info.

Now, even if each of those students only reviews and edits 1 wiki page a piece (diabetes, cardiovascular health, cancer, reproductive health, obesity), they will improve the health education of tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands.

That’s Public Heath advocacy that scales. Your concerns about the editorial process at wiki is a footnote, not the story.


The editorial quality of Wikipedia will effect the likelihood of Dr. Azzam and his students being able to make significant change to articles. That was my point. I base this on years of experience working on the encyclopedia. You base your opinion on how you’d like things to be.

It would be interesting to hear from Dr. Azzam when he’s done with his experiment. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t feel super frustrated.

On a side note, if I found out my doctor uses Wikipedia as a source for anything to do with my health, I would immediately find another doctor.


Are you so cynical that you think a guy who gets national press for teaching what’s likely a 4-week class to 5 people will be unable to find any coverage for the story about how Wikipedia is blocking his efforts?

I can write the upworthy headline now: Doctor Wants to Improve Health Articles on Wikipedia and You Won’t Believe Who’s Trying to Stop Him.

Good luck with that. That study is from 2006, and I’ve got my own guesses as to how things have changed since then.


If he tells other editors who he is and why he’s editing, he won’t be allowed to edit at all.

You have zero understanding of the internal workings of Wikipedia, and I’m apparently not going to be the one to educate you.

Feel free to get the last word in. I’m done.

This is actually pretty common in a lot of specialized fields. My former anthropology advisor has undergrads write, review, and edit each others Wikipedia posts (most on topics relating to central and south american archaeology) as assignments for class. The students learn how write, cite, and peer-review. Wikipedia gets better entries. My old prof doesn’t have to do it himself. It’s a win win win.


I used to do a similar assignment for my class of undergraduate behavioral science majors. My motivation was to get them to make a real contribution of their knowledge to the world, and think about writing for a broad community instead of the professor. But they got so scarred by the process that I’ve stopped. Several years ago, it was possible to write new articles about clinical tests and other relevant research methods; this is getting harder as more articles are out there, so they are left to improve articles that are more likely to have turf-warriors guarding it. Then, even when you try to explain copyright and creative commons to an average student, getting them to understand this when they create new images is a challenge. Most of the time whenever imagery got created anrd uploaded, it would get moved and deleted after a few weeks because the student didn’t understand the complex attribution process, or some other issue. Other students would get their articles deleted because of non-notability and didn’t have the stomach to argue, others for perceived copyright violations (they weren’t), or accusations that it seemed like a class assignment (god forbid). Maybe I’ll try again in the future, but probably in some different way that will be more likely to give the students a positive impression of wikipedia editing.


Nope, I don’t want the last word. I’ll give that to Dr. Azzam as quoted in the NYT. I admit I am remiss for not citing this earlier.

The students’ editing will be part of Wikiproject Medicine, which focuses contributors on the 100 or so most significant medical articles, including those on tuberculosis and syphilis, but especially on those important articles that need the most editing. (The project lists more than 350 active editors, many of whom cite an advanced degree under the header “medical qualification.”)

These articles are submitted to a group from Translators Without Borders that produces medical articles for Wikipedias in languages spoken in countries that often lack high-quality medical information. Examples include an article in Javanese on dengue fever and one in Hindi on urinary tract infection. Creating these high-quality medical articles fits neatly with efforts by the Wikimedia Foundation to make deals with cellphone carriers to provide Wikipedia content free of data charges, especially in the developing world where cellphones are often the only connection to the Internet.

If we want to get high-quality information to all the world’s population, Wikipedia is not just a viable option, but the only viable option,” Dr. Azzam said. [emphasis added]

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There is no such requirement. A wikipedia guideline page says

Editors may also use material from reliable non-academic sources, particularly if it appears in respected mainstream publications. Other reliable sources include:

university-level textbooks
books published by respected publishing houses
mainstream newspapers.

Editors may also use electronic media, subject to the same criteria

Check out any well-sourced page (I recommend ‘banana’ because it’s delightfully detailed) and you’ll see a great variety of sources: textbooks, journals, newspapers, etc. I would expect a medical textbook would fit quite comfortably.


Ah, ok. I’ve seen issues in the past where things were removed due to there being no online-accessible reference for something, but I haven’t looked at wikipedia’s rules much since then.

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Wikipedia is beyond help.

Verifiability is important, but privileging secondary sources over primary sources allows Wikipedia to privilege older errors over newer work. It’s a major problem in the historical articles.

Neutrality is important, but the current npov policy is not to try to achieve neutrality, but to favor the majority view over any minority view. If you are writing an article on trans people or autistic people, there are hate groups and pathologizing groups with louder voices and institutional advantages.

[trigger warning for anyone who had abusive teachers who encouraged other students to beat them up at unpredictable times.]

I got bullied off of Wikipedia for seeing some incoherent gibberish, asking about it on the talk page, checking the source, and rewriting it. Someone reverted saying my edit was ungrammatical, I took this for trashing and edited back, they insulted me and accused me of edit warring, I corrected again and explained on the talk page, and asked them what they were accusing me of, and then the moderators started insulting me and explained that it was my duty to obey all bullies and MEND [MY] WAYS!!! for daring to try to improve Wikipedia and disobey bullies bellowing incoherent orders.


I’ve wanted to do this for the various Family Therapy articles (major theories and influential people in the field) for years. As things stand, most of what’s there is 1) plagiarized from major textbooks*, 2) plagiarized from low-quality websites, or 3) put up there by people trying to promote their very new, poorly-researched, self-helpy or pseudosciencey “branded” approaches to therapy.

If anybody out there would be interested in working with me to try to make this an elective for counseling/family therapy students in the SF Bay Area, let me know. I have done a small amount of Wikipedia editing in my day, enough to know the basics of markup and a good bit about Wikipedia guiding principles, but not enough to make me a decent teacher to n00bs. Given that over 90% of MA-level mental health students in California are women, this would also be a way to bring more women into the fold of entry-level editors.

*Which was actually helpful when using plagiarism-detection software that didn’t have the textbook in its corpus, but could webcrawl Wikipedia. Otherwise, not so much.


look at that wikipedia page on bananas

just look at it

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In all seriousness, how much evidence based therapy is there?