Home > information literacy > Should Students Use Wikipedia as a Source of Medical Information?

Should Students Use Wikipedia as a Source of Medical Information?

Image from wikipedia

Image from wikipedia

Do a Google search and invariably you’ll see Wikipedia is often one of the top links delivered in your search results.  User statistics for the English version of Wikipedia for the end of August 2009 show the site has 8,031,236 visitors an hour.

Many people question whether Wikipedia is a reliable source of information.  A study by Nature in 2005 concluded that Wikipedia (at that time) came close to the Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries.  I’ve heard a number of lecturers both at Dundee and in other medical schools say that students should not use Wikipedia to look for information, whilst other lecturers admit they have used it for quick reference.  Speaking to some students, they’ve mentioned that they use Wikipedia as a first port of call to get an overview of a topic before going on to refer to peer-reviewed journals etc.

So should students use Wikipedia as a source of medical information? How does it stack up? Do doctors make the effort to edit any inaccuracies they spot?  There’s an interesting overview of Wikipedia and whether it should be used as a source of medical infromation, ‘The Trouble with using Wikipedia as a source of medical information‘, on Laika’s MedLibLog. Laika (Jaqueline) is a medical librarian in Amsterdam and blogs about medical librarianship, evidence-based medicine, medical information and the Cochrane Collaboration.  Laika’s post about Wikipedia highlights some important points and issues about the accuracy of information on the site and reports on how Wikipedia are taking steps to address some of these issues and also how groups such as the NIH and journals such as RNA Biology are encouraging scientists and experts to edit and initiate entries in Wikipedia.

Laika suggests that a possible solution to the problems with Wikipedia is a medical wikipedia.  Ganfyd and Medpedia are two examples of medical wikis but these are very much works in progress.  Is this the way forward or should we be encouraging doctors to edit Wikipedia to improve the reliability of what’s there given that we know that other doctors, students and patients all use it as a source of information.  In response to a post by Anne Marie Cunningham on her informal survey of 1st year medical students use of Wikipedia at Cardiff Medical School, Chris Dawson advocates that we should be encouraging students to edit Wikipedia rather than use it.  Chris says

It wouldn’t take many medical schools requiring a “Web 2.0 Medical Resources” course focusing on available information, credibility, and online research to drastically increase the utility of Wikipedia and its ilk for both the medical community and patients.

What do you think?  Are all medical students aware of the issues concerning the accuracy and impartiality of some of the articles relating to medical information in Wikipedia or do we take it for granted that they know this?  Should we be encouraging students to edit articles which are factaully inaccurate or should those of us involved in medical education be taking that task on rather than starting another medical wiki?

  1. dundeechest
    September 16, 2009 at 23:06

    I use Wikipedia all the time, and I suspect anyone who says they don’t use it to research presentations, teaching etc is lying through their teeth.

    I encourage students to use it, as it is a reliable first port of call for most things, and frequently has links to other informative sites etc.

    I have to say I’ve ‘wasted’ many an hour following links in and out of Wikipedia – never sit next to me at a dinner party!

  2. Joel Schneider
    November 11, 2009 at 19:23

    As a student myself, I’ll admit that I do use wikipedia (I’ve not edited anything yet!), although not as a first port of call. If I do, I almost invariably check other sources to verify any information I’m going to use, using it as a memory-jogging tool, or starting point to access other things it links to. The thing is, wikipedia is easy and quick to use. Which would you choose: Google your term, click wikipedia and read. Or: take time to go to a library, find the shelf you think might have a relevant book/journal on, find one, look it up, find it’s not got much in it, pick the next book, look it up, find it useful, then realise it was published 5 years ago – wonder is it still relevant… OK, it’s not often that much of a difference, but I think students want information as easily and quickly as possible! I think the same applies to online resources. I’ve not researched it, but I’m pretty sure that the more steps and time a student has to go through, the less likely they’ll take that route.

    • Dundee e-MedEd
      November 12, 2009 at 00:08

      Hi Joel – How you use wikipedia sounds very much like other medical students have said they use it both here at Dundee and in some national studies. I think your hunch that the more clicks it takes get to an online resource the less likely students will follow that route is right and probably applies to most of us who use the web. Do you think we should be doing more to direct students to reliable websites and developing information literacy skills?

      • Joel Schneider
        November 12, 2009 at 09:56

        I think it might be a good idea to have that sort of teaching. We have had a couple of sessions, but, from what I can remember, it was quite basic/slow. Teaching students the principals of how to search (“and”, “or”, “not” etc.) is probably not that helpful for those who use the likes of Google all the time. Perhaps if the pace was greater, and it was clearer to students how reliability/accurary varies etc. it would be more useful. (We are, after all, used to a much faster pace of information delivery in lectures.) Teaching students to use some seemingly archaic, slow, difficult to use system might not produce the desired results.
        Adding to my hypothesis, I think that one could factor in how valuable a resource the student thinks it is. The more so, the more likely they’ll make the effort over it (this could be applied to books, lectures, wards….)

  1. September 16, 2009 at 18:28
  2. July 13, 2010 at 17:23

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