Oct. 27 2015

Wikipedia: Health Information Lives Here

Wikipedian Lane Rasberry Makes a Case for the World’s Most Popular Source of Health Information

Whether you’re looking for information about a specific medical condition, treatment, or method to prevent disease, chances are you will find yourself on Wikipedia. No matter what you think about the quality of its information, you cannot deny the availability and popularity of this free, crowd-sourced, online encyclopedia. In fact, Wikipedia has far more health-search traffic than the National Institutes of Health, WebMD, and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lane Rasberry, Wikipedian-in-Residence at Consumer Reports, shared his insights with the Mailman community at a recent workshop organized by the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion. Consumer Reports, a non-profit best known for its buying guides, sponsors Rasberry to edit and ensure that Wikipedia health content is current and science-based. Speaking about the site’s mission to empower consumers through transparency and information sharing, Rasberry encouraged health professionals to contribute reliable, scientific learning to Wikipedia.

“If any of you would like to consider Wikipedia as a vehicle for distributing public health information or disseminating health research,” said Rasberry, “then perhaps you would consider putting a sentence or two into a Wikipedia article as a vehicle for sharing information.”

Health information in textbooks and academic journals are protected by copyright licenses, making it expensive and difficult to access. Since Wikipedia has a free copyright license, all 20,000 Wikipedia health articles are easily found and widely read: by one estimate, health entries are viewed 225 million times each month in English alone. Articles are also available in dozens of other languages.   

“The world needs access to free, online, comprehensive information,” said Rasberry. “Not only do I want all health information articles on Wikipedia to be perfect, but I need that to happen pretty quickly. And I need them translated into every language in the world.”

Anyone can edit any Wikipedia article, and the edits go live immediately. However, Wikipedia’s reviewers are strict, and the post-publication review process is stringent. The global community dedicated to health and medical content is very active, second only to military historians, and debate around entries can be extensive. The Wikipedia article on HIV/AIDS  has the paper-printed equivalent of over 400 pages of discussion and edits on issues like the credibility of sources.

“We are striving for a standard of quality that would pass the traditional academic peer review process,” said Rasberry. To test this, Wikipedia submitted its article on dengue fever to the academic journal Open Medicine. The article passed peer-review and published in 2014. Although most Wikipedia entries have not reached this standard of rigor, Rasberry stressed that there is an inherent responsibility for public health researchers and professionals to ensure that the health information the public receives is up-to-date and evidence-based.

“Wikipedia—for what it is—has been a popular source of information,” Rasberry said. “The quality is what it is. But what I’d like you to consider is the audience that is going to Wikipedia, regardless of the quality.”

Watch video of the talk:

By Grace Lee,
Deputy Director, Lerner Center