Something happened to the text! I hate to re-write something, but I guess I have to now that the Westminster Dog Show is over.
The idea for the UCSF Wikipedia project, which has some very talented and energetic people behind it (emails typically get answered after midnight), is to harness the knowledge and creativity of very smart 4th year medical students. If they choose to take the elective, which is of course an optional part of the curriculum, they adopt an article from the list of articles on medical topics that have been rated "important" and also not ranked as one of the higher-quality articles. And then with some education and faculty help, they hopefully drag it up to a higher quality rating. Here is some more information about the elective and the people behind it:
What the students get out of the experience is a work in progress, in more ways than one. They universally like it, they have the opportunity to master the topic that the article was based on, they feel as though they were making a contribution (very important in the Wikipedia world, which is well represented with zealots), and they learn editing skills. Wikipedia editing skills are actually sort of low level programming skills, but they are geeky and clumsy enough to make most people shy away from editing.
Key to the Wikipedia editing process is the understanding of how it views itself. It was intended to be a tertiary source -- an openly-edited encyclopedia that is neutral and does not have a point of view to offer in its articles. There is no room for opinion -- if you state something as an opinion, it will get yanked by another editor or promptly deleted if it gets through the first level of review. Everything must be referenced, and hopefully with an agreed-upon high-quality reference. The students act as primary sources (writers or, if you will, editors) who research secondary sources (references or citations), and then create a tertiary source -- an encyclopedia.
This is not something that fits well into the medical world, which is quite top-down -- anathema to the Wikipedia crowd. If you read a medical review article or a book chapter, it is written by an expert whose job is not only to know the research on which his field is based, but, importantly, to offer opinion that ties the research together and fills in the holes with experience. But Wikipedia medical articles are anonymous, at least until you start drilling down into the talk page, which only the committed will do. Theoretically, everyone can be the (anonymous) expert.
The details about WikiProject Medicine, of which this elective is a little piece, are here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:MED I will try to summarize. The best articles are rated FA (Featured Articles -- gold star!). When about 25,000 medical articles were rated for importance, only 114 were FA; of the 1025 that were considered as top or high in importance (the remaining 2 of the 4 categories are mid or low importance), only 27 were in the FA category and an additional 52 were Good. All the remainder fell into B (not too bad, really), C, "Start", or "Stub" -- the latter two meaning that there was not really much information in the article. To put another way, about 22,500 of the 25,000 articles were C or worse, and about 650 of the 1025 top/high importance articles were C or worse.
To make it sound as bad as it actually is, a majority of the articles that were considered top/high importance articles were C or worse, and only about 10% were in the best (FA) category. Now if you are looking up an article on Charles W. Eliot, it is probably not all that important -- you may get some incorrect facts, but nobody will be harmed. On the other hand, if your aunt is diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and you do what a majority of people in the world currently do and run to the Internet, i.e., Wikipedia, you will encounter an article that is both high in importance, but only B in quality. Hopefully you have a hematologist/oncologist on the case and no harm will result, but you could get some incorrect, unbalanced, or incomplete information. And for many medical articles, you will get some incorrect information. If you are like me (until recently) you have never clicked on that folder tab in the top left-hand corner labelled "talk" which will give you some juicy chatting and a rating that senior editors in Wikipedia have given the article. But what is the alternative? The other medical sites are skimpy, spotty, often amusingly shallow and dippy, and often downright dangerously opinionated with an ax to grind.
More to come...sorry.
About 10 years ago a friend who was tech-savvy (defined as my not having any idea what he was talking about, but it seemed that I should be paying attention) told me about 2 new Internet projects that he was excited about. True to form, I had not a clue what he was talking about, but I nodded appreciatively at his sharing the inside knowledge of what was happening in the cutting-edge SF Bay area tech world. Strangely, I remember what he told me about the two new projects that were already up on the Internet on a small scale, and if popularity can be the judge, he was correct.
The first was Twitter. My reaction then, which I cowardly kept to myself, was that if something can be said in less than 140 characters, it isn't worth reading. What I was not appreciating is omnipresence of the small screen, and the fascination of being able to communicate largely useless information at any time, like when driving on freeways. But I still hold to my curmudgeonly conclusion at the time. Tweeting is a colossal waste of time, but so are many of the things we do, like writing a blog.
The second was Wikipedia. I do recall what he was saying about open programming of a free encyclopedia -- and it did sound cool, although it has taken a decade of watching it develop and finally participating in parts of it myself to get a deeper understanding. My understanding is really not very sophisticated compared to some people I now work with, but it turns out to be a lot more so than anyone with whom I have discussed WikiProject Medicine.
Wikipedia's strength is its greatest weakness -- its openness means that anyone throughout the world can contribute knowledge -- and literally millions of people do all the time. And its openness means that anyone throughout the world can contribute what he thinks is knowledge, and unless a more knowledgeable "editor" does something about it quickly, that contribution will stick. And until someone else takes the more courageous step of removing that silly bit of supposed information, it will stay there. It takes more courage to remove stuff -- much more courage -- that is already in a published article than it does to add some inane text that has some sort of inane reference citation to support it.
A few months ago I volunteered to help with an effort at UCSF to improve the content of medical articles on Wikipedia. But more on that tomorrow when you and have more patience. Moreover, the Westminster Dog Show starts today.
Above: Another sunrise from the deck.
Contact me at: