Becoming a Digital Contributor: A Reflection on the Expanding WikiProject Medicine Course

By: Christine Greipp, MLIS, fourth-year medical student, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine

The Expanding WikiProject Medicine course at UCSF, described in a recent Academic Medicine article, intrigued me for a number of reasons. With a master of library science, I had been a medical librarian before a medical student. My prior work was in consumer health and patient education within a tertiary hospital. I firmly believe that medicine is at its best a partnership between physicians and patients. So I naturally jumped at the chance to participate in this project, which has the admirable and ambitious goal of providing free, high-quality health information to the world’s population in their language.

The course description starts with the provocative question, “Admit it – you use Wikipedia extensively. Who doesn’t?” As medical students, most of us are likely savvy consumers of information. We might use Wikipedia as a quick memory jog when we encounter a disease we once knew that now eludes us, before delving into more conventional sources. But Wikipedia may be a patient’s only source of medical information. Our patients may not know about other sources of health information. For patients in the developing world, who may have limited access to libraries, Wikipedia may be the primary way they access information, via mobile networks (provided without data charges by some wireless carriers).

For these reasons, ensuring the quality of Wikipedia medical articles is paramount. I joined this course both to learn more about Wikipedia’s standards and to play a role in creating and improving content. We started by completing training modules, which covered a gamut of topics, from Wikipedia’s standards for biomedical content to the nitty-gritty of how to add and edit articles. Many of us were surprised to learn how stringent Wikipedia’s standards are, for both quality and quantity of citations. Locating suitable sources was only the beginning. Perhaps more challenging was synthesizing what we had read, then organizing and writing the content. As we struggled to decide what and how much to include, we recognized parallels in patient care: how to present complicated explanations and data in language our patients can understand. Ideally, we assess a patient’s level of understanding and attempt to meet them where they are. We provide just enough detail but not so much that it overwhelms. This is part of the art of medicine, and this course provided a chance to hone our skills.

We also were challenged to work as a group. We sought a topic in which we could make the most impact, one that was heavily searched that also needed substantial improvement; together we selected hepatitis. The group work was a course highlight and an impetus for learning. As senior medical students, dispersed to various sites, many of us had been rotating alone, or perhaps with another student or two. Our singular focus had been on audition rotations and interviews in our own specialties. Now, this chance to collaborate with other students on a noble goal was energizing. After we had reached our consensus on topic, we divvied it up into sections such as causes, screening, diagnosis, and treatment. We worked on our individual assignments, then regrouped to complete a joint peer review, gathering to edit the draft article line by line. As we worked to eliminate inconsistencies and redundancies as well as improve clarity, we were practicing a skill we will need for the rest of our career – working as a team toward a common goal.

On reflection, this course was one of the highlights of my medical career; it allowed me to improve my writing, research, teamwork, and even patient communication skills while also making a meaningful contribution to Wikipedia. In the words of Dr. Azzam, after years as a digital consumer, I have become a digital contributor and am honored to have been part of this worthy venture.

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  1. What’s New and In the Queue for Academic Medicine | AM Rounds
    January 31, 2017 at 9:32 AM

    […] Why Medical Schools Should Embrace Wikipedia: Final-Year Medical Student Contributions to Wikipedia Articles for Academic Credit at One School Azzam and colleagues describe how through a credit-bearing course, fourth-year medical students edited a health-related Wikipedia article. Students improved the articles, enjoyed the flexibility of the course, and gained a deeper respect for Wikipedia. A blog post on this article by a fourth-year medical student is available. […]