Back in January 2009 I started the Master of Information Management program at the University of Maryland, and last semester I took a class on Consumer Health Informatics and another one on Social Computing.  With the permission of both professors, I wrote different versions of a paper for each class about how Wikipedia has maintained accurate health information, and a version of this paper is now available here. The Accuracy of Health Information on Wikipedia (click to access the report) was an interesting paper to write, and I hope that you find it just as interesting to read.

Wikipedia is different from other well known websites with health information in that it allows anyone – subject experts and laypeople – to contribute and edit information that it presents. Given that anyone with access to the site can edit it, scholarly studies have found to the surprise of Wikipedia’s critics that scientific information on the site is as nearly as accurate as that found in Encyclopedia Britannica (read the December 2005 Nature article “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head” that helped publicize this debate). This also goes against the reasoning of established measures of health information accuracy like the standards of the HONcode. Instead of having strict editorial procedures involving subject experts, Wikipedia’s culture fosters and regulates a sizable community of ardent editors who are devoted to protecting the information integrity of the site, and scholars speculate that their motivations are not altruistic. Through the diligence of active Wikipedia users and the establishment of standards, procedures, boundaries of responsibilities, and sanctions, the site has articles with accurate information. To discuss Wikipedia’s accuracy, this paper reviews the scholarly literature about Wikipedia’s accuracy in relation to health information. This discussion will focus on the the following topics: Wikipedia’s contribution to consumer health information sites on the Internet, metrics used to measure the quality of health information on the Internet, its level of accuracy, what aspects of its community culture enable it to maintain remarkably high accuracy levels, and the characteristics and aims of other collaborative websites like Wikipedia.