Wikipedian in residence ‘improves public access to science’

But individuals are still much more likely to trust NHS sources of information on cancer

September 17, 2015

Employing a Wikipedian in residence to improve the quality of the online encyclopedia measurably improves public access to scientific information, according to results from a trial run by Cancer Research UK.

But the nine-month project failed to give pages about cancer the same levels of public trust as the widely used NHS Choices website, and failed to hit other targets, providing lessons for universities that have also employed resident Wikipedians.

So far, Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley and West Virginia University are among those that have enlisted editors to help improve entries on the site.

CRUK last year employed John Byrne, a prolific editor, to edit pages about cancer and encourage others to do so.

Speaking at a conference in London earlier this month, Mr Byrne said that the research institute had released more than 500 images, particularly medical diagrams, which were then used in Wikipedia pages to explain types of cancer. These articles to date have been viewed more than 16 million times on desktop computers alone, he said.

The project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Wikimedia UK as well as CRUK, set out to get four specific pages about cancer to “featured article” status on Wikipedia, a mark of excellence.

But this target was not achieved, with only two articles having this status after the project, Mr Byrne told the Wikimedia Science Conference on 3 September.

The impact of the edits was quantified by asking members of the public what they thought of the old and new pages.  

After edits, two-thirds of those questioned said that the Wikipedia pages were easy to understand. Before the changes, just half had believed this was the case.

But the NHS Choices website was much more trusted and comprehensible to those surveyed.

CRUK is not presently looking to employ a specific Wikipedian, but it may incorporate elements of the job into a new “content outreach” role. 

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Wikipedian helps ‘make science more accessible’

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