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UC San Francisco Med Students Help Make Wikipedia Reliable

It is now a graduation requirement for medical students at the University of California at San Francisco to edit Wikipedia articles, and this has been a mutually beneficial arrangement for both them and the digital resource.

A person holding out a 3D replica of the Wikipedia logo.
While crowdsourced information on Wikipedia may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of reliable sources for research, students at the University of California at San Francisco have been fact-checking the site’s medical information for years to help make it so. Now it’s a required part of their education as medical students.

According to an email from the nonprofit Wiki Education Foundation, UCSF School of Medicine Professor Amin Azzam has been working in recent years to develop courses where students learn to write and edit Wikipedia articles, with two main objectives: to correct missing information and expand topic areas, and to improve the abilities of students to describe medical conditions, facts and procedures.

The practice is now required coursework for medical students at the university, according to Azzam, who said editing and fact-checking Wikipedia helps students learn how to communicate in terms patients can understand while honing their own research skills.

“For a decade, we’ve had medical students at UCSF editing Wikipedia for formal academic credit-bearing coursework as they work to improve the quality of health information on Wikipedia. And for the last two years, we’ve added that as a required assignment in a required course for all second-year medical students,” he told Government Technology.

“In the big picture, medical students learn to be digital contributors to the Internet, as opposed to digital native consumers of it. What they learn is to apply their emerging health professional knowledge to sources of information that people will seek for health information,” he added. “We’re fixing sources of misinformation, if you will, so that’s a core skill that the medical students learn. … Because you are writing for a general audience, you learn how to communicate more effectively with your patients.”

According to LiAnna Davis, chief programs officer and deputy director at the Wiki Education Foundation, the course is supported via the foundation’s Wiki Education Program, which promotes the integration of Wikipedia into coursework by educators throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In recent years, she said, the foundation has worked with about 800 different universities, including the University of Southern California, Medical University of South Carolina, University of Central Florida and Tel Aviv University to involve more students in the effort. According to the foundation’s website, similar courses have engaged more than 2,300 students who have edited over 1,500 articles, adding 2.28 million words and 27,400 references to articles with over 87 million views.

“For the last dozen years now, we have been working with university faculty across the United States and Canada to support their students as they edit Wikipedia as a class assignment, and in the program, we support faculty of all disciplines. No matter what kind of subject area you’re teaching in, there are content gaps on Wikipedia in that knowledge area,” Davis said. “We are all experienced Wikipedia editors ourselves. We know the ins and outs of Wikipedia policies and guidelines, and we can help empower subject matter experts, students or other new contributors to Wikipedia to add their missing knowledge to Wikipedia.”

Noting that Wikipedia is largely dependent on content editing directly on the page from “extremely dedicated” volunteers around the world who fact-check the site, Davis said this model tends to produce higher-quality information that cites reliable sources, despite common public skepticism about the general accuracy of its articles. With the help of students such as Azzam’s, she said, Wikipedia can serve as a preliminary resource to begin research.

“I think students have an important role to play with Wikipedia. Students are already learning about a subject area. They’re learning about the topic,” she said. “And so they really understand what the important elements you need to include in an article are from a newcomer’s perspective. ... Most of them have used Wikipedia many times themselves, and so this gives them an opportunity to share their knowledge with the world as they learn in their higher education classes, and get themselves out of the academic ivory tower and into the real world of sharing their knowledge with a broader populace.”

Davis said she thinks the work of Wiki Education and students such as Azzam’s have “contributed to a broader acceptance of Wikipedia among academics.”

“Especially as more and more people understand media literacy and understand the source environment that exists in this world of fake news and misinformation and disinformation, those sorts of sources like Wikipedia that are controlled by crowd-based knowledge have become more and more relevant,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.