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Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2017-09-06/Special report

< Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost‎ | 2017-09-06
Biomedical content, and some thoughts on its future: Wikipedia's medical an scientific content has come a long way since 2001. Here are some thoughts on how it may continue to evolve.

Wikipedia publishing interactions.svg
An outline of some of the interactions between Wikipedia and the broader biomedical community and knowledge ecosystem

A recent article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health outlines the history of Wikipedia's medical content, community, collaborations and challenges. It is aimed at a non-Wikipedic audience, however it should hopefully still be an interesting read to those well-versed in the movement. Here, we outline a few points from the article, and expand a little on the relevant aspects for Wikipedians.

A little history

Wikipedia's medical content has come a long way since 2001. WikiProject Medicine is consistently one of the most active editor communities, as well as one of the longest-running (since 2004). As with the whole encyclopedia, 2007–2008 marked a major turning point. Along with the sharp drop-off in editor numbers, this year saw a large increase in citations added to articles. Since that spike, the number of references added each year seems to be generally increasing. The addition of new medical GAs and FAs has slowed a little since 2008 but are still growing at around +15 per year.

There are many external assessments of content quality, referencing, systemic biases, community structure, editor demographics and much more (as frequently reviewed in The Signpost's research report section). Sadly, most studies look at single-timepoint snapshots of Wikipedia. Although many topics are covered repeatedly over the years, the differing methodologies make it difficult to analyse how metrics have changed over time. We therefore encourage researchers to consider comparing at least a few time points. Similarly, there are currently no large-scale standardised comparisons of articles in different fields. It's a cliche to say that 'more research is needed'... but more research is needed.

Addressing challenges simultaneously

With the WMF developing their strategy through to 2030, we also dedicated some of the paper to discussing the encyclopedia's challenges and some possible ways to tackle them. These are organised into discussion of individual contributors, larger organisations, representation in society as a whole, and aspects of the software and interface. The paper focuses on biomedical content, but many of these topics are applicable to the encyclopedia as a whole.

It's no surprise that growing and maintaining a healthy editor community is vital as the encyclopedia matures from primarily content creation more towards content improvement. We need to continually improve the encyclopedia's technologies, community culture, policies, demographic diversity, public opinion, and support by outside institutions. It is our opinion that tackling diverse challenges simultaneously has a greater effect than addressing them individually. Progress in one area supports progress in the others.

The value of outside collaborations

We make the case that collaborations between Wikipedians and outside institutions/individuals are particularly effective ways of bringing new contributors to the encyclopedia. Wikipedia's community is mostly set up on the ideal of long-term editors. Such editors are certainly invaluable, but engaging potential users with other contribution styles can still be useful. Traditional outreach efforts such as workshops, editathons and competitions engage established editors. Working out ways to get productive, reliable, well-integrated contribution from new users, or even one-off users, we think that these represent some of the best ways of growing Wikipedia's community and content.

What Wikipedians can do

Collaborations require Wikipedians to be involved to provide insider knowledge. Here are a few examples of activities that the editor community can do to more broadly help out:

Go out and seek collaborators and users. Many successful collaborations have come about through the initiative of users who contacted partner organisations. Often organisations that would never have thought to be involved are excited to collaborate. These include medical schools (e.g. UCSF), institutions (e.g. Cochrane), and societies (e.g. International Society for Computational Biology). Doubtless, more examples can be discussed in the comments.
Help streamline guidelines. Wikipedia's structure makes it easier for policies to be expanded than consolidated. It's a difficult task, but we need to make sure that guidelines are as short, easy to navigate, and readable as possible. This will make it as easy as possible for partners to work out how to contribute in ways that are compatible with our policies.
Welcome new collaborators and users. Much has already been said about ensuring our culture is as welcoming as possible, but there's never any harm in reminding ourselves of its importance. We have to keep improving and updating tutorials and help material (especially with the increasing prominence of VisualEditor). Being patient with new users, assuming good faith and helping them get used to Wikipedia's norms and policies makes a big difference to their first edits. Remember that it can take months to learn. Even experienced editors can still be surprised by new policies tucked away in the labyrinth.


It is possible that successful ideas from the biomedical community can also be translated into other sections. Hopefully the academic WikiJournal format pioneered by WikiJournal of Medicine will be extended to additional journals covering broader topics (such as the WikiJournal of Science in development). Similarly, a lot can be learnt from successes in other fields, such as the GLAM-Wiki initiative. Many of the collaborative ventures require additional organisational effort. At their best, however, they engage people who would not have otherwise contributed to a Wikimedia project.

Main reference:

  • Shafee, Thomas; Masukume, Gwinyai; Kipersztok, Lisa; Das, Diptanshu; Häggström, Mikael; Heilman, James (2017-10-29). "The evolution of Wikipedia's medical content: past, present and future". Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 71 (10). doi:10.1136/jech-2016-208601. PMID 28847845.

Further reading: