Scientist Meets Socialite: NIH and Wikipedia Begin to Date

by A. Lynn Grossman

I became interested in online media as an assistant editor at Psychology Today magazine. Recently out of college, and low on the editorial totem-pole, I raised my hand when the Editor-in-Chief asked for a volunteer to write and produce interactive surveys and self-tests for Prodigy Online. I’ve been interested in the intersection of online media and content ever since.

This interest was piqued when I heard about a workshop taking place at National Institutes of Health (NIH) headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

A Wake-Up Call
During the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic that started in April 2009, health institutions such as NIH, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) discovered that, in a Web 2.0 world, their ability to provide information to the public was both more possible and more challenging than ever before. While each launched an arsenal of online resources (see example), it was as if someone had shouted “Free iPhones” at a store down the block. The multitudes were heading straight for Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia with articles written by um… regular folks. No advanced degree required. As H1N1 spread, page hits on Wiki’s flu-related articles like this one increased from 16,000 to 2.86 million page hits a day. To folks at NIH, this was “wake-up call”. What do you do when you’re competing with one of the most popular Web sites on the planet? You court them. You plan a date. And you hope it turns into something steady.

The First Date
On July 16th, 2009, NIH hosted a day-long Wiki Academy, at which a dozen Wikipedians (Wiki volunteers) guided 100 NIH scientists, policy makers, and communication personnel on the inner workings of Wikipedia. It was like a first date, full of mutual interest, good intentions, and heaps of uncertainty.

Wikipedia and NIH are an unlikely couple, but each has what the other wants. In an interview recorded for NIH Radio, Burklow credits Wikipedia as “the go-to source for hundreds of millions of people around the world.” In the same interview, Adrianne Wadewitz, a Teaching Fellow at Indiana University explained Wiki’s interest: “Wikipedia doesn’t just want to rely on people who voluntarily come to us just because they click on a button and edit.” (Click here for complete interview.)

Wikimedia Foundation, the entity that provides organizational structure and server space to Wikipedia (a volunteer-led organization), has organized a number of Academies since 2006 to entice researchers to mingle in the Wiki playground, but this Academy marked a number of firsts. It was the first Academy held inside the United States and, worldwide, it was the first held at a government agency or a health sciences institution. I contacted NIH to see if I could attend but there wasn’t any more room. Good thing the media was ahead of me. The Washington Post sent a reporter, the blogosphere was alight (see here and here and here) and twitterers, too. This is exactly the kind of attention NIH wants.

Interlacing Cultures
The biggest question in my mind (and others) concerns quality and culture, and these are interrelated. Wikipedia uses a consensus approach, with gentle supervision by editors. As Bill Wedemeyer, a member of the Wiki Academy Team, explained in an interview, “Almost anyone can edit any article. The real trick is making it stay edited.” He says “every day can throw up a new struggle” when an article is on a controversial topic (see animal testing and homeopathy), but that this happens rarely in the sciences. While a ‘wisdom-of-the-crowds’ editorial process is ripe for misinformation, dubious, unreferenced assertions are likely to be eliminated soon after they’re added, Wedemeyer notes. And articles that are popular targets for vandals are protected, like the article on George W. Bush. But protected articles are an exception. Scientific articles are likely to remain open because the level of vandalism on scientific articles is “extremely low,” says Wedemeyer. Compare this process to the rarefied, disciplined, and cloistered world of scientific publishing. Could anything be more dissimilar?

To maintain accuracy, Marin P. Allen, Deputy Associate Director for Communications and Director of Public Information at NIH, says that medical and health articles will be continuously vetted by scientific experts. But, as the NIH collaboration ramps up, NIH and Wikimedia Foundation tactfully acknowledge a need to find “strategies to interlace the distinct cultures of Wikipedia and the research community.” (See press release.)

In addition to his involvement with the Wiki Academy Team, Wedemeyer is Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Physics at Michigan State University and a sizzling ballroom dancer (Argentine Tango is a specialty). He is the embodiment of “interlaced cultures”. In his presentation for the workshop at NIH, “The Art of the Article: How and why you should contribute,” Wedemeyer familiarizes scientists with the genre (“Wikipedia articles are like Cell mini-reviews”), and explains that they should write to their audience (“general readers, new and future students”), rely on published research (“no original data, conclusions or speculation”) and keep it short (“meant to be read in under 45 minutes”). But mostly, he focuses on the collaborative ethos that defines Wikipedia. Wedemeyer says the audience at NIH was “really warm, really positive.” To bolster their good first impression, he and other Wiki volunteers have created support systems to mentor NIH scientists as they start to edit and contribute articles.

From Dating to Going Steady
Anna Kushnir was not at the Wiki/NIH Academy, but she has some expertise in this area. Kushnir has a doctorate in Virology from Harvard University and one of her main interests is harnessing and focusing the power of social media to aid the progress of science and science education, and she has done web development and online community building for Nature Network and writes a blog on science communications.

Kushnir thinks the NIH/Wiki initiative faces two major hurdles. First, it’s not easy to make or edit a wiki. “I am not a novice when it comes to computers,” she says, “and I find it hard to edit a Wiki page.” Second, she knows of projects like the NIH/Wiki Academy that have faced challenges because there is not enough incentive for scientists to participate. Kushnir believes that this problem would diminish if funding bodies and tenure review committees incorporated public outreach into the scheme they use to evaluate a scientist’s accomplishments. But, she adds, “this won’t happen in my lifetime.”

Case in point: Wedemeyer has traveled the country and the world to introduce Wikipedia to scientists. At the same time, he also believes that contributing to Wikipedia is more likely to hurt a scientist’s career than help them, because of demands on their time, and he encourages his graduate students to focus on research and publication in traditional journals. At NIH his inspirational message is this: “You and I are scientists and science educators and it’s a safe bet we didn’t go into the field for the money. Our wealth is of a different kind. It lies in creating knowledge and sharing knowledge. And if that’s your kind of wealth, then Wikipedia can be a powerful friend and can give you wealth beyond your imagination.”

Feedback from the workshop indicates that some staff are already on board, Allen reports, and NIH is currently working on guidelines for scientists and communications staff. It seems the first date went well.

Can a buttoned-down government agency and premier research institution partner with a freedom-for-all Web site that set out to change the rules—and succeeded?

Who knows where this relationship might lead.