Friday, November 21, 2008

Wikipedia: Love It or Leave It?

Wikipedia - honestly, who can say they have NEVER searched it before? The convenience and relative ease of finding information from Wikipedia is too tempting to bypass. Plus, Google floats Wikipedia pages pretty high up on a list of results.

For example, if you search myasthenia gravis in Google, Wikipedia is the FIRST result to appear. This entry beats out results from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and from the Mayo Clinic! What is at the top of a Google results list is the most linked to page on the search topic, not necessarily the most accurate or relevant page.

Over the past two years, I've noticed that some medical students cite Wikipedia as their source in writing up a short assignment. As an education librarian, this makes me twinge just the slightest bit and sigh. I teach students that Wikipedia can be a good place to start to get an overview of information, but it's NOT a resource you should cite. This is especially true if you are researching a health topic. But again, convenience wins out and some students cite Wikipedia anyway.

Wikipedia is a bit like the game of telephone that we played as children. The first person whispers the sentence to the person next to them, and as we all know, by the time the last person has received the information, it has morphed itself. That's the thing with Wikipedia and health information - most of it is quite good, but to cite it as your main resource could be risky. If by chance the information you gathered is inaccurate, you run a risk of doing harm with this information if you choose to make a medical decision for a patient based on what you find in Wikipedia.

So how then to make Wikipedia useful for finding more reliable information?

Thankfully, a well built Wikipedia entry has bread crumbs to lead you down the path to better sources of information.

(1) Look for the References link in the Contents box to see what resources were cited

(2) If a piece of information sounds interesting, look for a reference citation number (and click on it) at the end of that sentence.

(3) If it's a well-researched topic, you will see research articles listed. Clicking on the PMID or PMC link at the end of an article title will get you to the abstract in PubMed.

(4) Under the External links at the bottom, there may also be useful associations and other websites

Want to know how often a page has been edited?

Click on the history tab at the top of the page. You can see how busy people have been editing this information. Frequent editing should be a red flag of how much you can trust the information to be accurate.

Reuter's published an interesting article this month entitled Wikipedia often omits important drug information.

What's my final say on Wikipedia?

- If you find yourself on a Wikipedia result, it can be a lauching pad for finding better resources to link to and to cite those reliable resources instead of Wikipedia.

- It's a good place to get a gist of a topic.

I'm glad to see in the presentation below that a doctoral student in Communications at the University of Buffalo (SUNY) expressed his views on Wikipedia and how it can be used in education:
I Heart Wikipedia
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: education students)

No comments: