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Columnist attacks med school’s homework to edit Wikipedia

Published: October 9, 2013, 11:31 pm ET

Medical school is supposed to teach students how to be doctors. Or so we think.

The University of California, San Francisco implemented a new policy for its medical students regarding academic credit. Medical students who update Wikipedia pages on diseases will receive medical credits, and frankly I couldn’t be more disheartened.

Wikipedia is probably one of the most unreliable sources on the Internet. It is pretty widely accepted that Wikipedia is not highly respected or particularly accurate. There is no doubt in my mind that medical students are some of the most brilliant and respected people in the world.

I highly doubt that the most brilliant students need or want to gain their credits by editing a website that is commonly thought of as unreliable. I have no doubt that these edits will not change the unreliable reputation of Wikipedia and I don’t believe that it should.

Medical students are still learning; they are the babies of the medical field, unaware and naïve about how to handle the ER and or research diseases. Shouldn’t experienced professionals be the ones editing online resources? They are the ones who know what diseases look like and have seen how they affect people. Medical students should be focused on becoming professionals and finding solutions for diseases, not writing about the causes on a website.

I truly believe that professors and the general public will still never accept Wikipedia as being valid, so why waste the precious time? What are my future doctors doing posting information on the Internet—shouldn’t they be learning about biology, chemistry, anatomy and medicine? Why use up time on the Internet that could be spent learning?

I know receiving credits and getting good grades is important, but learning and understanding the material seems more crucial to me as a future patient. I don’t think updating websites is worthy of academic credit and don’t believe that students should receive them.

I know that if I’m getting wheeled into an emergency room, I want the comfort of knowing that the person who has my life in his or her hands will know exactly what to do. How can I expect my doctors to know exactly what to do when they are wasting time updating the Internet? There is something that doesn’t seem ethically right in giving medical students, the people who perform 20-hour surgeries and take oaths to save people’s lives, academic credits for website updating.

I question where in society the line is drawn for what is acceptable and what isn’t. I don’t think giving medical students credits is acceptable nor should be tolerated. Should architects be given credits for every advanced calculus problem they help fellow students solve? Should professional athletes be paid more money for publicly dispelling rumors about players or their sport?

I certainly don’t think so, and therefore, I believe that the University of California, San Francisco and any other educational institutions that are permitting these credits should rescind these policies and think long and hard about the consequences.

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  • Columnist

    I am shocked — shocked— to find that rambling is going on in here!

  • Rory

    How dare they spread medical information for the good of humanity! Wikipedia is one of the greatest public projects in human history, and I can assure Lindsay that in a few years she will be absolutely mortified that she posted something so embarrassingly ignorant in a public forum.

  • Warren W

    Agree with the comments above – if you look at any data from Pew group on internet usage in the US, sites such as Wikipedia represent the lion’s share of where patients go to for medical information. This fact, combined with physician shortages, imply that patients will continue to rely on the web for medical information. UCSF is taking a bold move by encouraging future medical professionals to get involved in this space and learn how to review web-based content and improve it.

  • Will

    Wikipedia is my favorite thing about the internet. There is no better way to learn science than by pouring through the pages of well-referenced articles they have. Wikipedia is more reliable than most other sites because of its collaborative aspect. Articles get removed if they don’t have enough reliable references.

    The notion that Wikipedia is not accurate was valid about 10 years ago, but it is not true anymore.

    The medical students are updating the disease pages based on new information that has been found in medical journals. So the inaccuracies they find were true at one point in time, but were recently proven to be false based on new scientific data.

  • Jake Orlowitz

    Some quick notes: Wikipedia has 40 million medical articles which receive more than 200 million views per month. This is more than the World Health Organization, National Institute of Health, or Web MD. Simply, wikipedia is the most used starting point for medical research in the world. A 2005 study in the prestigious journal Nature compared Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica and found that they had similar number of errors. That was 8 years ago, and our errors get fixed more quickly than traditional publishing models. Surveys have shown that 50-90% of medical students, junior physicians, and clinical professionals use Wikipedia. This is no longer even a dirty secret, it’s just the way it is. UCSF took a bold step towards improving Wikipedia while also improving the critical thinking and digital literacy of their students. They should be applauded, and I have no doubt that after their successful course experience that many more will follow in their footsteps. For more, go to (note: I’m the Outreach Coordinator for Wiki Project Med Foundation)

    • Jake Orlowitz

      Sorry, that’s 40 THOUSAND medical articles.

  • Human

    Still stuck in the pre-internet age I see. Wikipedia has one thing no other sources of information can top: it’s completely free. It literally is the closest thing we have to a compendium of human knowledge, and none of it is done for profit. It’s done by volunteers (which includes those students) from all over the world. If anything, Wikipedia is a monument to the human spirit.

    Rather than whining about it all the time because of the perceived unreliability of something anyone can edit. Why don’t you do some proper research on how articles are truly created in Wikipedia? Just because “anyone” can edit anything doesn’t mean all edits are acceptable. Just because it’s not written by world-leading experts doesn’t mean it isn’t referenced to works by world-leading experts.

    And please. Learn how to properly use Wikipedia. Learn to read not just the text, but also the references. The same thing you should be doing when reading print research materials. Because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. A tertiary source of knowledge. You should NEVER use it as a primary source. Thinking doctors use it as a guide to treat patients is like assuming that doctors in the previous decades used Encyclopedia Americana to diagnose you. They’re not doing it for their benefit. They’re doing it for yours. So YOU, as well, know more about what exactly is ailing you (in layman’s terms) as you lie in your hospital bed with your smartphone or laptop. Because you’re not exactly in any condition to buy specialist research articles on it. And even if you did, you’re not exactly going to understand them, would you?

    And yes, an increasing number of scientific papers and resources are being published under Open Access and free licenses for the same reasons – knowledge should be free. Some are even doing it specifically so Wikipedia can use it (CERN for example). Some are emulating Wikipedia’s style to build databases of their fields (a notable example is the Tree of Life project, a Wikipedia-style attempt to create a database of species). Museums and libraries (for example: the Smithsonian) have collaborated with Wikipedia before to let the public be able to access their collections more readily. And professors are increasingly letting their students correct or even create articles for Wikipedia for their coursework. It lets them learn how to do research and source their work properly (important skills to learn if they plan on eventually publishing research) while still allowing their professors to oversee whatever mistakes they had made and correct them while grading them. And all of it results in them sharing their knowledge with the millions of people who use Wikipedia worldwide.

    The only ethically wrong thing here is you thinking that in order for something to be reliable, you have to buy it.

  • MedicalStudent

    If you understood anything about evaluating sources or the peer-review process, you would understand that Wikipedia undergoes a bigger, better peer-review by experts than any other review-style source. The scientific information available is vast, reviewed/edited by many, and is more reliable than many of my textbooks, which present information that has been contradicted by discoveries.