Newsflash (sorta): Wikipedia is a Big Deal!

Wikipedia by Giulia Forsythe CC BY 2.0

In case you haven’t heard (or used your common sense and figured this one out already), Wikipedia is the leading source for health information on the internet for both providers and patients. 50% of users went to Wikipedia when they identified a gap in their knowledge base, especially when it comes to more severe conditions like tuberculous. People also went to Wikipedia to get information on drugs they’d be prescribed, but this behavior seems to be highly correlated with the age of the patient. According to the study, older patients seem to be less likely to search for health immediately, but eventually went online to do searches.

Wikipedia is a tricky area for information professionals (in my opinion, anyway) because it is SO pervasive and can contain truly high level information. For example, one course at UCSF Medical School is based completely around editing Wikipedia articles to reflect the best medical knowledge available. They started with editing articles that were the most read and those with the greatest health impact, and worked from there to improve the quality of the articles by adding citations or more information when necessary.

On the other hand, Wikipedia can contain dubious information that lacks cited evidence or doesn’t fully capture multiple viewpoints. The Wikipedia community does a lot to minimize these issues, but it’s still important to remember that reading Wikipedia without a critical point of view can be hazardous.

To me, there are two things any type of professional (medical, information, etc.) can be doing in response to the high levels of use of Wikipedia:

  1. Get on Wikipedia as an editor and contributor!! I recently had the pleasure of working with a graduate social work course at UM on contributing to their field’s presence in Wikipedia and it was empowering to know that we can impact the knowledge base in positive ways.
  2. Teach information literacy skills in evaluation and critical appraisal. This is a much harder than creating a Wikipedia account and dedicating a few hours a week to editing. In spite of the challenges of teaching meaningful evaluation skills, its imperative to helping users who are already using imperfect information sources to more effectively learn what they need to know.

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