Posted by: rmostell | February 18, 2009

Wikipedia in Medical Education?

What is the value of Wikipedia in medical education?  Is it something that we as professors should assign our students to read? or edit? or contribute to?  Is Wikipedia something that academic experts in their field choose to read or contribute their knowledge to?  Maybe Yes, maybe No.

I often tell students to look things up on the internet using Google, Wikipedia, PubMed, or MedlinePlus but with the implied caveat that they should not rely on any single source of information.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.  Each has its limitations and inaccuracies.  This is true of textbooks, peer-reviewed journals, newspaper articles, commercial websites as well as radio and television news.  Thus, the bottom line is don’t believe anything you read unless you can verify the content from multiple, independent sources.

All sources contain mistakes.  I’ve never found a textbook in my field (biochemistry and molecular genetics) that didn’t have errors of fact or figures containing mistakes or misrepresentations.  Remember that these textbooks are all written by experts in their field.  Similar things can be said of peer-reviewed journal articles.  I have found errors in my own publications years after they were published.  Some journal articles have to be retracted for various reasons including technical errors and intentional misrepresentation.

So where does this leave Wikipedia?  It’s hard to say because we don’t really know who the authors are, what their backgrounds are, or what their levels of expertise are.  I suspect that many of the authors are actually students who have taken a class in the subject or have read books or articles about the subject and simply copy what they have read.  Perhaps they did some research on the internet as I referred to above or even consulted an expert with many years of expertise in the field.  (Experts also make mistakes!)

However, I think in general that very few professors who are experts in their field and have studied a subject for many years and consulted many resources actually take the time to write or contribute to Wikipedia articles.  Professors are under tremendous pressures to teach their classes, conduct their research, direct student research theses, attend committee meetings, help advise students and the university administration, and stay up in their field by reading, writing and attending conferences.  This doesn’t leave much time to sit down and write articles for an online encyclopedia, especially one that can be edited and changed by anyone else including a student with only an introductory knowledge of the subject.

So where does this leave Wikipedia?  I think it leaves Wikipedia and other similar online encyclopedias in limbo.  They can never expect to be the final, authoritative word on every subject and readers can never expect to rely on these online resources as the best information available.

Yes, I still recommend that students consult Wikipedia as a first line of information.  For example, I find Wikipedia to be a good source of images and chemical structures and a good source of ideas to pursue in other reading materials.  However, I would never stop at Wikipedia being the only source of information on a subject and I expect students to use Wikipedia in the same manner that I do with a critical eye for accuracy and references giving the original source of information.

What do you do in your classes?  Are you afraid to say the word ‘Wikipedia’ to your students?  Or do you encourage them to check it out as one of their sources?

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Responses

  1. […] I think this approach answers some of my criticisms of online encyclopedias in my February 18, 2009, blog:   “Wikipedia in Medical Education?” […]

  2. Dear Ray:

    I strongly agree with you in the ideas posted in the whole post. As you say, even the most recognized Biochemistry books have mistakes or contradictions among them.

    I must confess, however, that frequently I use wikipedia as my primary andsometimes only source of information on general culture issues, and that usually it satisfies my curiosity.

    David

  3. Ray,
    I think what you say is very well-balanced. I use Wikipedia as an entry level resource, but you can’t just stop there if you want to learn anything in any depth. PubMed is a better alternative in many cases, but again a critical eye is necessary. I don’t think we spend enough time teaching students to evaluate publications properly.

    Joe

  4. Who The Hell Writes Wikipedia, Anyway?

    I found this interesting article by Henry Blodget that gives some insight into the “inner workings” of Wikipedia editing.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/2009/1/who-the-hell-writes-wikipedia-anyway

    Does this increase your faith in the content of Wikipedia? It seems rather dubious to me that the final say on any content is in the hands of those who are most informed on the subject. Who are these self-appointed experts who decide what you read?


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