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Vol. LXI, No. 18
September 4, 2009

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Coaxing a New Community of Contributors
NIH, Wikipedia Join Forces to Improve Online Health Info

On the front page...

If NIH and Wikipedia end up producing hundreds or even thousands of offspring, then the date of their conception might be recorded as July 16, 2009. That’s the day the two “parents” officially joined forces in Wilson Hall for a Wikipedia Academy, the first ever held in the U.S. The event was also the first time the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the online encyclopedia, has collaborated with a federal agency.

About a dozen foundation staff and volunteers joined a hundred or so scientists, science educators and writers as well as other communication professionals around laptop-equipped tables to encourage the agency to become contributors to what is now “the world’s largest encyclopedia.”


  Dr. Bill Wedemeyer speaks at NIH’s Wikipedia Academy.  
  Dr. Bill Wedemeyer speaks at NIH’s Wikipedia Academy.  

Matchmaker, Make Us a Match

The partnership was actually born of a “wake-up call” about how people now get their health information, according to John Burklow, NIH associate director for communications and public liaison. The academy event—a first date, of sorts—was organized over several months by staff of the NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

It’s no secret that the Internet has transformed how we communicate, bank and navigate various other aspects of living. More and more, people are turning to so-called new media or social media vehicles such as Wikipedia as the “go-to source” for answers to medical questions, Burklow said. As a treasure trove of health data and research on medical matters, NIH is a logical resource for Wikipedia.

Collaborating seems only natural, stressed Dr. Marin Allen, NIH deputy associate director for communications: “We’re all public servants. We all want to provide shared, trustworthy health information for use worldwide.”

The morning of the all-day academy was devoted to getting NIH’ers acquainted with Wikipedia, its history and potential. By afternoon, the assembly of about 130 had formed several small work groups for hands-on orientation to Wikipedia mechanics, writing and editing.

Free Info Online for Everyone
Collins (r) receives a standing ovation as he enters his first town hall meeting as NIH director. Deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington (second from r), who served for 9 months as acting NIH director, jokingly advised him not to get too used to such receptions.
Led by NIH Associate Director for Communications and Public Liaison John Burklow (c) and his deputy Dr. Marin Allen (second from r), NIH collaborates with Wikipedia. The group teamed up to hold the first U.S. Wikipedia Academy recently at NIH. Kelli Carrington (seated), NIH public liaison officer, gets oriented to writing for and uploading to the online encyclopedia.

What if everybody everywhere could find any kind of information they wanted at any time for free? Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe that goal, yet Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales not only voiced it as an objective, but also made it a personal and professional mission.

Begun in January 2001, Wikipedia is written by hundreds of thousands of volunteers sitting at computers around the world. Basically, if you have Internet access, you can contribute to Wikipedia’s bank of knowledge.

The resource “has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference web sites, attracting around 65 million visitors monthly as of 2009,” according to its own entry (called an “article”) on Wikipedia. “There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 13,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.”

Wikipedia is the fifth most popular property on the web, according to Jennifer Riggs, foundation chief program officer. That places the online resource in the same stratosphere as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook. Good company for NIH—the largest medical research agency in the world, funding health studies in all 50 United States and 90 nations worldwide.

As of July 31, the English version of the web-based encyclopedia contained close to 3 million articles and more than 17 million pages that have experienced over 323 million edits. With that many cooks in the kitchen, the quality of Wikipedia’s content often has been questioned.

An internal assessment by the foundation found only 1 percent of Wikipedia science articles rated excellent, with 84 percent rated incomplete and 15 percent rated ambiguous. So, how reliable can the information be, if everybody can add their two cents? That’s exactly where NIH can be of service, academy leaders explained.

We hope to infect you with our enthusiasm,” said Frank Schulenburg, the foundation’s head of public outreach. “We hope you will give us feedback to make Wikipedia better.”

Ultimate Peer Review?

Staff from NIH and Wikipedia take enthusiastic first steps in a partnership to upgrade the scientific and medical information available through the popular online encyclopedia.

Dr. Tim Vickers, a biologist and Wikipedia registered editor, told academy attendees that writing for the online encyclopedia offers something highly valuable not only to users but also to contributors. “[It] gives us the opportunity as scientists and science educators to put [science topics] into context,” he noted.

Some scientists might see the wiki invitation as a chance to pen the ultimate peer-review publication, dazzling their colleagues with perhaps brilliant, but nevertheless academic prose. Wikipedia leaders instead encourage writing that the masses can easily digest. The point is to be accessible to everyone, after all.

Wikipedia content is “meant to derive its authority from journal references, scientific literature, not from [contributors’] personal experiences,” explained Dr. Bill Wedemeyer, a biochemistry and physics professor at Michigan State University who conducted a quality evaluation of Wikipedia from 2006 to 2008. He said in addition to scientists having a “broader impact on science outreach and education,” Wikipedia offers “collaborative development of teaching materials” and its articles can serve as “an introduction to science, medicine and research for new and future students.” That’s already three good reasons for NIH’ers to consider contributing.

Most scientists did not choose the profession in hopes of amassing huge monetary rewards, Wedemeyer supposed aloud, but rather they considered the promise of accumulating valuable knowledge. “One person can make an enormous contribution to Wikipedia,” he concluded. “[It can be] a powerful friend and provide riches beyond your wildest imagination.”

Wiki Terms of Endearment

Wiki—Originally coined to describe a simple software for creating online databases, wiki is now used more broadly to refer to a collaborative web site. It is often used as a prefix or combined with another word as in “Wikipedia” = wiki + encyclopedia.

Featured article—High-quality content designated by a small bronze star and considered by Wikipedia editors to be among the resource’s best offering on a topic.

Daughter article—Spin-off link or, in other words, a term contained in the text of an entry that has grown in relevance to be its own independent article. In the unique nature of wiki, a feature article may contain several daughters, which then may give birth to more generations of daughter articles. The original articles do not become longer or overly complex for the reader; they grow deeper with links that the user can choose whether to explore.

Stubs—Wikipedia-speak for entries that are incomplete, abbreviated or otherwise too spare in detail to be helpful to users. At the recent academy, NIH’ers were encouraged to contribute knowledge that will help grow stubs into full-fledged articles. Sandbox—Online testing ground where wiki newbies can safely play around with their potential contributions/edits without fear of wrecking the real thing. NIHRecord Icon

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