NIH Refers to 'Wikipedians' for Help: Scientists Learn Online Etiquette

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By Ibby Caputo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is acetaminophen made from? Does heartburn lead to Barrett's esophagus? Will your 3-year-old outgrow her stutter?

When Americans have questions like those, one of the first places they go for answers is online. At some point, many end up at Wikipedia.

"More and more people are using the Web to get their health information to augment what they learn from their physicians," says John T. Burklow, the public liaison for the National Institutes of Health. A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that researching health information is the third most popular online activity among adults, after e-mail and general searching.

To make that online information more reliable, NIH is encouraging its scientists and science writers to edit and even initiate Wikipedia articles in their fields. This month, it joined with the Wikimedia Foundation, which publishes the cyber encyclopedia, to host "Wikipedia Academy," a training session on the tools and rules of wiki culture, at NIH headquarters in Bethesda.

Over the course of a day, more than two dozen Wikipedia volunteers -- just a few of the 4,000 people who edit English-language Wikipedia articles at least five times a month -- gave presentations promoting the open-source encyclopedia and encouraging about 100 NIH employees to become editors. The volunteer instructors, or "Wikipedians," were not just techno-geeks; they also included scientists who could appreciate the questions NIH staffers might have. Attendees were shown how to use the template that produces a Wikipedia article, with its embedded table of contents and multiple links; they also discussed topics such as managing the quality of articles and the verifiability of information.

Among those at the event was Ronald Summers, a radiologist at the NIH Clinical Center who is trying to find ways to spot early colorectal cancer. He said he had thought about contributing to Wikipedia before but had been intimidated by its complexity.

"It seemed like they had a special language you had to use to format the articles," Summers said.

Wikipedia articles (there are more than 2.9 million of them in English) can be initiated and edited by anyone who can access the Web site. Quality is informally monitored by fellow users, who can make corrections and change the text freely. All information that is posted is supposed to include citations so a reader can check the primary sources of the data.

By law, NIH must make its health and science articles publicly available within a year after they appear in peer-reviewed journals. A collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation seemed natural, Burklow said, because NIH and the foundation share a common goal "that the information on Wikipedia is of the highest quality and up-to-date."

Since the workshop, Summers has edited his first Wikipedia article, though he would not disclose the topic because editors are supposed to be anonymous.

"As it turned out, it was a very simple structure with headings and indentation levels," Summers said. "You could learn it in just a couple of minutes."

Comments: caputoi@washpost.com.


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