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Wikipedia's medical collaborations gathering pace

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By Tony1 and The ed17
Some of the editors involved in the drive to enhance Wikipedia's free medical information ... James Heilman, Lane Rasberry, and Hilda Bastian (with Kathryn Funk, foreground, who is supporting Bastian's efforts at the NIH)

The key annual event in the Wikimedia calendar, Wikimania 2013, will be held in Hong Kong in just five weeks' time. Among the events will be a presentation by two people who are working to promote the development of medical content on Wikimedia projects. One is James Heilman of Wiki Project Med, a non-profit dedicated to making "clear, reliable, comprehensive, up-to-date educational resources and information in the biomedical and related social sciences freely available to all people in the language of their choice". The other is Lori Thicke, president of Translators Without Borders (TWB), the Connecticut-based organisation set up in 2010 to provide pro-bono translation services for humanitarian non-profits.

At Wikimania, Heilman and Thicke will discuss how TWB and Wikipedia are collaborating to improve medical content. Thicke told the Signpost that "more people die from lack of information than from lack of medication. ... We chose to work with Wikipedia because it’s the most frequently consulted health resource on the web. It's not only scalable, but with Wikipedia Zero, consumers in some parts of the developing world actually have access to Wikipedia free of data charges." Crossing the language barriers to health knowledge, she says, is a major hurdle for enabling people in the developing world to live healthier and longer lives.

Heilman, who was recently interviewed in a Bulletin of the World Health Organization, says that while medical articles are in a reasonable state in a few European languages, Wikipedias in almost all other languages have threadbare coverage, including languages spoken where medical services are poor or non-existent. Wikipedias there have significant potential to improve health care in many parts of the world, he says, "but translation is essential if we're going to realise that potential ... and the key to translation is that an article be important and of high quality."

The collaboration has already produced nearly 200 translations into more than 30 languages, but this is a drop in the ocean of information that Wikipedia could make available across languages. Most projects have no equivalent to the English Wikipedia's WikiProject Medicine, although Heilman listed eight other Wikipedias in which there is a reasonably strong presence: the German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Romanian Wikipedias. Of passing interest is Heilman's observation that TWB's active membership is about 90% female, the inverse of the gender imbalance in the Wikipedia editing community.

In March, the cross-language medical drive attracted a $14.5k grant from the Indigo Trust to help train and fund English–Swahili translators in Kenya. The current collaboration is learning from a Google–Wikipedia translation project Health speaks, which emphasised the use of advanced machine translation. Heilman says, however, that "it's more important to forge close links between article reviewers, Wikipedia's medical editors, and the translation corps"—a hallmark of more recent efforts.

National Institutes of Health

The NIH's campus in Bethesda, Maryland, where the recent Wikiconference was held

Among our emerging medicine-based relationships with external organisations is one that arose from last year's Wikimania in Washington DC. It was there that Heilman was introduced to Hilda Bastian, who works for the PubMed health project (funded by the American National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world's largest medical research funding body). In collaboration with the English Wikipedia's WikiProject Medicine, Bastian has since arranged for two of her team members to spend part of their time using their scientific expertise to improve the quality of Wikipedia's medical articles.

Bastian's particular interests are post-traumatic stress disorder and women's health, including pregnancy. Speaking to the Signpost as an individual—and not on behalf of the NIH or its funded agencies—she responded to our question about the state of Wikipedia's articles on women's health by suggesting that serious improvements are needed: "Drawing in people with an active interest in women's health is a priority for me personally. Take just one example, Postpartum hemorrhage: this is one of the main reasons young women die globally and it's mostly preventable. Yet it's start class and only rated as of mid-importance."

Just over a month ago, WikiProject Medicine held a community conference at NIH's National Library of Medicine just outside Washington DC. Attended by Bastian and Heilman, the conference included an editathon conducted by Lane Rasberry for a group of NIH staff.

Cochrane Collaboration

Yet another key player is involved in Wikipedia's medical efforts. The Cochrane Collaboration is an independent non-profit that aims to systematically organise medical evidence-based research information, with some 28,000 volunteers worldwide. Cochrane has built a medical database of great significance to modern healthcare research, much of it based on the organisation's reviews and meta-analyses. User:Ocaasi has gained rare access to this database by persuading Cochrane to donate 100 free full licenses to Wikipedian medical editors. He told the Signpost that "Cochrane was always a top target for us ... their donation gives us access to high-quality, reliable secondary sources so that our articles can reflect the best available scholarship about the efficacy of medical treatments."

The Signpost can reveal that Cochrane is likely to extend its relationship with the Wikimedia movement by taking on a Wikipedian-in-residence in the northern autumn, for which Wiki Project Med is helping to coordinate the search for the best candidates. Ocaasi says the position—essentially online and not requiring relocation—will be with Cochrane's Infectious Disease Group in Liverpool, UK: "The Wikipedian-in-residence will help Cochrane's authors interact with Wikipedia, understand its policies, add reliable sources to expand and update medical articles, and engage with the broader community on medical issues."

University of California, San Francisco

To these medical efforts a higher-educational dimension has recently been added. Ocaasi and Heilman were recently invited to visit UCSF, a major medical research and training university, where they gave lectures and ran editing sessions on Wikipedia and medicine. In the first such move, the university is introducing a senior undergraduate option to train medical students to improve health-related articles on Wikipedia.

The Signpost asked Heilman to identify the biggest challenge we face in improving the dissemination of free medical information around the world. He pointed to two separate needs: "one is for more people writing content in English, and this is where initiatives like UCSF's will hopefully help; the other is for more people to integrate translated content into the respective language of Wikipedia. For the first, we want content experts; for the second, we want Wikipedians in targeted languages who can integrate translated material."

UCSF Medical Center has introduced a new undergraduate option that trains students in medical editing on Wikipedia.

In brief

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