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Wikipedia as a Reliable Source of Health Information

Joseph Reagle

December 10 2009

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What is Wikipedia?

“The free encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

In August 2009 there were over “75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.”

Twenty-five of those editions have more than 100,000 articles.

The original English version includes over three million articles. (Wikipedia2009aut)

The Wikipedia “Trinity”

Users collaborate under the policies of:

  1. Neutral Point of View (NPOV).
  2. Verifiability (V).
  3. No Original Research (NOR).

Neutral Point of View

NPOV at first seems like an impossible, or even naïve, reach towards an objectively neutral knowledge, it is quite the opposite.

This policy instead recognizes the multitude of viewpoints and provides an epistemic stance in which they all can be recognized as instances of human knowledge—right or wrong. The NPOV policy seeks to achieve the “fair” presentation of all significant perspectives, not truth. (Wikipedia2008npv)

For example, the “Young Earth Creationism” article can explain why some think the earth is so young without answering whether it is true. It can even explain why some think the claim is false, without engaging whether that meta-claim is true.

Instead, they “punt” to their sources.


The other two policies of “No Original Research” and “Verifiability” are both about attribution, meaning, “All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.” (Wikipedia2007aon)

Simply, substantiate claims and avoid crackpots.

Use of Online Health Information

Pew finds that “74% of American adults go online, … and 61% of adults look online for health information.” (FoxJones2009slh) (Of those online 75% of adults look for health information.)

Researching health information is said to be the “third most popular online activity with the most senior age group, after email and online search” (JonesFox2009go2).

Wikipedia as a Popular Source

Wikipedia is used as a source for many things, such as press coverage, books, and court rulings.

Patients also naturally use it, as do health providers apparently. A Wikipedia Signpost article notes that a recent proprietary survey of American physicians finds that almost 50% of doctors who use the Internet for professional purposes use Wikipedia’s medical articles. Of those who use Wikipedia, 10% of them also edit it. (RagesossJarry12502009n)


In a press story, Lisa Grossman summarized recent research on the question of “Should You Trust Health Advice from the Web?” (Grossman2009syt).

In one study, Wikipedia articles appear in the top 10 results for more than 70 per cent of medical queries across four different search engines; in the US Wikipedia gets more hits than corresponding pages on MedlinePlus. (LaurentVickers2009shi)

Reliability and Quality

In general, Wikipedia is found to be comparable to other commercial reference works, though its coverage can be inconsistent. On health information, Wikipedia does fairly well too.

In a recent study, 45% of surveyed American toxicologists rate Wikipedia as “accurate” in portraying the health risks posed by chemicals; 50% believe it overstates risks, and 5% believe it understates risks.

This was exceeded only by WebMD, which was the only source to be regarded as accurate by a majority (56% percent) of toxicologists.

By contrast, prominent newspapers were considered accurate by only 15%. (Lichter2009toc)

Acceptance and Engagement

The NIH hosted a “Wikipedia Academy” at its headquarters.

Over the course of a day, more than two dozen Wikipedia volunteers…gave presentations promoting the open-source encyclopedia and encouraging about 100 NIH employees to become editors… . 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. (Caputo2009nrw)

Why is this a Concern?

A loss of gate keepers?

Yet, there are examples of incorrect (and dangerous) information and bias on the Web (e.g., the anti-vaccination movement or corporate supported discussion boards for off-label pharmaceutical usage).

So, what do we do in this new mediascape?

The Problem of Expertise

This is a problem of expertise. We can be an expert in very few things, therefore we rely upon others. Harry Collins and Robert Evans note that we are therefore dependent upon “meta-expertise”: heuristics for evaluating others’ expertise (CollinsEvans2007re).

How do we know if expertise is well founded using meta-expertise?

Tools for meta-expertise

In the Wikipedia context, P. D. Magnus posits five such means by which information reliability might be ascertained (Magnus2009otw). The first three are:

  1. authority (reliable source),
  2. plausibility of style (presented like an expert),
  3. and plausibility of content (not absurd on its face).

Magnus’ final two types are really tactics:

  1. calibration (testing a subset of the authors claims, e.g., did drinking my urine give me extra energy?),
  2. and sampling (a second opinion).

Possible Solutions (Brainstorming)


  1. What is Wikipedia and how does it work?
  2. Our reliance on online information?
  3. What to do about it?

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to the conversation!