Editing Wikipedia Pages for Med School Credit
By NOAM COHEN
Published: September 29, 2013
Medical students at the University of California, San Francisco, will be able to get course credit for editing Wikipedia articles about diseases, part of an effort to improve the quality of medical articles in the online encyclopedia and help distribute the articles globally via cellphones. While professors often incorporate Wikipedia work into classes, hoping that student research can live on online, the university and others say this is the first time a medical school will give credit for such work.
“We as a profession have our corpus of knowledge, and we owe it as a profession to educate the lay public,” said Dr. Amin Azzam, a health sciences associate clinical professor at the U.C.S.F. School of Medicine who will teach the monthlong elective course in December.
The course is open to fourth-year medical students and was scheduled for a month when many travel the country for interviews to arrange their residencies, so they need the flexibility to work remotely, Dr. Azzam said. Three students have signed up for the course, but he said that this time was really to test whether the concept was worthy.
He said he could envision such a course being required for students as they begin studies and must immerse themselves in the details of how the body works, and, at times, stops working.
Wikipedia editing will force students to think clearly and avoid jargon, he said. “We do a great job in helping them talk to doctors, but we don’t do as good a job in helping them speak to the public,” he added.
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.
He credited one of his former students, Dr. Michael Turken, 32, a first-year resident in internal medicine at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, with helping to conceive of the course.
Dr. Turken said the importance of Wikipedia’s medical information became clear to him a couple of years ago when a friend asked him how long H.I.V. tests could give false negative readings.
A Wikipedia entry said two weeks, and “that didn’t seem right,” he said. “I checked with the literature, and it is up to 28 days, based on the test.” He made the change, then looked at how many people read the article a month — often tens of thousands. Rather than be offended at the open access to Wikipedia pages, Dr. Turken said he found it “very reassuring that it is a collaborative effort,” with many people checking what is written.Dr. Azzam said the details of the course were still being worked out. He said he planned to see the students for two days at the start to plot the writing and editing requirements, then track their work on Wikipedia. While some might fear that his students would cut corners, Dr. Azzam said: “I am working with medical students — professionals in training — who are highly motivated. I’m not worried about them slacking.”