Using Wikipedia Responsibly for Health Information and Research

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Overall, analyses of Wikipedia’s biomedical content have found that it is generally of moderate to high quality but imperfect, with content gaps, a lack of depth, and sometimes errors. There is a strict set of guidelines for citing biomedical information, but individuals’ implementation of these guidelines can vary. Volunteer editors are constantly working to improve Wikipedia’s health articles to make them more accurate, readable, and complete. However, it is unlikely that Wikipedia will become a perfect health information resource anytime soon.

Despite these challenges, Wikipedia is one of the most frequently used health information resources in the world. Over 90% of medical students have reported using Wikipedia in their studies and 50-70% of physicians have reported using Wikipedia when providing care. It is often used as a starting point for background information and research. Wikipedia is even increasingly being used in instruction, as editing articles allows students to practice research skills while contributing to freely available health information accessed by millions of users each year.

Anyone who uses Wikipedia for health information—whether they’re a clinician, professor, student, or layperson—should be familiar with some simple techniques to evaluate the quality of an article.

  • First, look at the article as a whole. Is it lengthy, with multiple sections and many references, or is it very short with only a few subsections that do not reflect the breadth of information you would expect to see on that topic?
  • Next, check on the article’s quality grade; this can be viewed on the article’s Talk page (accessible from the tab at the top left of an article). Articles are given grades ranging from Stub (a very basic description of a topic) to Featured Article (has passed an in-depth examination by impartial reviewers).
  • Finally, look at the article more closely. Is most of the information cited, and do the references appear to be recent, reliable secondary sources from third-party publications? Look for systematic reviews and references to publications from government institutions like the NIH or guidelines from professional organizations. Be wary of articles with few references, outdated references, or information that relies mostly on individual research studies.

If an article is raising red flags for you, try starting with a different resource. For example, HSLS’s collection of online textbooks organized by topic can be a great place to start. You can also move into the HSLS database list to begin searching for literature. Moreover, remember, if you see an error on Wikipedia, you can fix it! To learn more about evaluating or editing Wikipedia, be on the lookout for HSLS’s next offering of Wikipedia for Health Sciences Students or submit a question to our Ask a Librarian service.

~Kelsey Cowles