Fixing Wikipedia - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Fixing Wikipedia


Pharmaceutical Executive


Vet and verify

While this work is incredibly valuable, it seems like a drop in the ocean. That's why Cole would be delighted to see the pharmaceutical industry get involved.

He says, "Wikipedia is just waiting to have good content written onto it. If a pharma company produces a model encyclopaedia article conforming to our arcane but not impossible norms, under the Creative Commons 'CC-BY-SA' license, nothing will prevent it from being adopted wholly if we don't already have the article, or in part if that part improves an existing article."

Cole is not overly concerned that pharma companies will overrun Wikipedia with information that smacks of self-promotion. Problems only arise when companies try to force something into the encyclopaedia that doesn't conform to Wikipedia's rules. He says the "secret" to successfully adding content is to make it good content; companies will only face difficulties when they try to slant content or edit articles directly.

"My perception, and that of at least one other veteran medical editor, is that, so far, the companies have been no problem at all to us," says Cole. "I don't think I've confirmed one instance of company editing in eight years here, and where I've suspected it, it has been benign."

Cole does however, have an alternative—he would like to see paid editors reviewing medical articles on Wikipedia. The idea is that named, highly-regarded scholars review for accuracy, balance and comprehensiveness articles that have reached Wikipedia's top "Featured Article" standard. Those that pass review would then be locked down. Future editors, rather than working on the "approved" version, would update non-public drafts, which would only replace the locked version after it had passed another expert review.

The funding for these paid editors would come from relevant non-profits whose mission includes public education, with oversight provided by relevant scholarly and professional societies. Cole would give preference to benevolent foundations or government agencies, but doesn't discount a role for non-profits funded by pharma. He believes this approach would also overcome one of Wikipedia's biggest problems—the reluctance of experts to contribute.

"Because any Randy in Boise can do what he likes to our articles, experts just don't bother," says Cole.

Randy is the archetypal "relentless but uniformed" Wikipedia editor first mentioned in a 2006 Wired essay. Cole says few academics are willing to waste their time composing a brilliant article only to have it descend into drivel as well-meaning amateurs or academics from outside the discipline "correct" it. "And they don't have the time to argue with Randy for weeks about why vaccines don't cause autism," he says.

Cole believes that if this model was adopted it would not only improve the quality of content on the site, it would also increase the volume of quality content. With a new, reliable class of Wikipedia article developed, genuine experts would be happy to write for Wikipedia, for free.

"Members of the different disciplines would informally adopt the articles in their areas of interest, producing a thousand times the quantity of quality content than even the pharmaceutical industry could afford to pay for," says Cole.

However, it is funded; the idea of delivering approved medical content on Wikipedia makes perfect sense, but change at Wikipedia happens slowly.

Late last year, a discussion started on the Wikiproject Medicine pages around the idea of adding disclaimers to all medical articles on Wikipedia. Common sense you might think, but the discussion thread around wording, positioning and design of any disclaimer runs to almost 40 screens and ends without any consensus almost three months later.


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