Wikipedia shows NIH scientists the basics of adding to site

The goal is to get more experts contributing to the user-generated online encyclopedia.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Aug. 10, 2009

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In an effort to attract more expert contributors to the science and health pages of Wikipedia, the National Institutes of Health held a first-of-its kind crash course in Wikipedia culture for NIH-affiliated scientists.

The Wikipedia Academy, held July 16, brought together volunteers from the NIH as well as Wikimedia Foundation staff members and experienced Wikipedia contributors. The Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit arm that hosts the free, online encyclopedia

At the academy, NIH volunteers learned how Wikipedia could be used to disseminate quality health and science information, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to contribute or edit content on the site.

Wikipedia describes its academies as public outreach events aimed at engaging academics and other experts who are not familiar with wiki culture or online communities. Jay Walsh, spokesman for Wikimedia, said this was the first time the Wikimedia Foundation worked with a federal agency, or a health and science institution. It was also the first academy held in the United States.

Marin Allen, director of public information for the NIH, said the event was the result of problems the institute had early on with people trying to make changes to information on Wikipedia without knowing the culture of how it worked. The agency gathered a group of about 100 volunteers to kick off an effort to promote Wikipedia as an outlet for disseminating research coming out of the NIH and its affiliated agencies.

"Most of the work that we produce in terms of health information is based on science -- it's breaking, it's something we keep up to the minute and something we want as much dissemination [of] as possible," Allen said. "And all of our work is pretty much anonymous, though highly vetted, which is the same kind of culture that Wikipedia has."

Bolstering the need for improved quality of health information on Wikipedia was a study conducted by Wikipedia contributors Michael Laurent and Tim Vickers, which ranked the Web-based encyclopedia among the top 10 search results in 71% to 85% of the health-related online searches. Their research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Assn. in July (link).

A separate Pew Internet & American Life Project study released in June found that 61% of adults look online for health information.

Walsh said that because Wikipedia is an open project, anyone can participate, which means that "there's always an awareness ... the information you read can change and that all knowledge is open to a certain degree of error."

Bringing in more people with experience in medicine will result in positive changes, he said.

Expert contributors start to see how to improve the information once they become engaged, Walsh said. "They may say, 'That's a reasonable source, but here's an even better source.' Or even better is when NIH or other government agencies understand that, really, the more information they put out there, the more it gets into Wikipedia."

Allen said several participants went to Wikipedia right after the event to add information. The NIH is working on guidelines it will post on its Web site for other scientists and researchers interested in contributing to the wiki (link).

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