A common mantra among teachers assigning research papers is a phrase students know all too well. It is pounded into students’ minds: do not reference Wikipedia. Use sources, but do not, under any circumstances depend on Wikipedia as a legitimate source.
However, the University of California San Francisco is now offering a course in which current medical students update medical content on Wikipedia.
The free online encyclopedia is consulted by users for a wide array of information, and among these is health topics. Recognizing the gaps in content and accuracy of the site, the school is having medical students research and update the pages in exchange for credit.
This begs the question, “Will students updating information make Wikipedia more credible?”
“For me, if there was a posting that listed resources from somebody who was in medical school, I would more than likely believe that information and leave it alone,” Breail Thompson, junior in animal science and industry, said. “You could always double check the information by looking it up in their resources if they are legit resources.”
Others disagreed that the students had the credentials to update the pages.
“I would never go to Wikipedia for medical advice in the first place,” said David Rintoul, associate director of K-State’s Division of Biology and graduate program director of the Division of Biology’s Graduate Studies. “There is a reason they are called medical students.”
Wikipedia allows a person to look up information updated by a variety of contributors, ranging from amateurs to experts. Anyone with Internet access the ability to edit the content on the pages.
“I get a sense that the students may be wasting their time,” Halle Sparks, freshman in biology, said. “The pages may get mistakenly edited by others afterwards.”
The biggest concern with Wikipedia is that as soon as the edits are uploaded by UCSF students, another editor could go to the page and edit the piece again. This could lead to inaccuracies. Dishonesty and illegitimate postings on pages related to medical content could mean catastrophe for readers if they don’t consult another resource or physician.
Rintoul said there are more credible online sources for medical information, Mayo Clinic, for example. He said the information is more likely to be accurate and will be supported by current research.
“Science runs on peer review, so it is just not a place where [Wikipedia’s] standard holds,” Rintoul said.
Rintoul said he would not be interested in offering credit to students who updated medical pages on Wikipedia, nor did he think it would be effective for the classes he teaches.
“Anyone can do it [edit a Wikipedia page]. You do not need a class to do it,” Rintoul said. “I can see editing Wikipedia as a valuable exercise, just not in my classes.”
Potential benefits of the activity is that students would have the opportunity to research and create pieces in professional lingo they would one day use in the their field.
“I do not not think there is anything wrong with offering class credit for editing Wikipedia,” Sparks said. “I think that it would give the benefit of thinking in medical terms. What concerns me is that Wikipedia is not reliable at all, and I understand that may be the school’s goal, to improve the medical presence on the site.”
Students may continue to wonder if using Wikipedia is as bad as their teachers make it out to be, because oftentimes, the information can be fairly accurate.
“Wikipedia is a good place to start, but whatever you learn there, you need to double check it,” Rintoul said. “Primary sources are better than secondary.”