Covid: How scientists are working with Wikipedia on access to information

It was once looked down on as an inaccurate source of information, and strictly warned against by teachers and university professors.

But the public perception of Wikipedia has changed, and must continue to do so, argues Adam Harangozo, the first ever Wikimedian in Residence at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) based in London.

Mr Harangozo, who formerly worked in Edinburgh, is one of a growing number of Wikimedians in residence at libraries, universities and other cultural institutions across Scotland and the UK.

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He is the first to work with the NIHR, as part of a pilot which began last year.

Adam Harangozo, Wikimedian in residence at the National Institute for Health ResearchAdam Harangozo, Wikimedian in residence at the National Institute for Health Research
Adam Harangozo, Wikimedian in residence at the National Institute for Health Research

His role forms part of the evidence and dissemination team, and involves planning, coordination and teaching.

The goal is for accurate information about medical research to be more accessible to the public.

He believes there is a “gap in health literacy”, both in the language used by scientists and their distance in society from most “everyday” people.

“It is the responsibility of science to be open, inclusive and transparent,” he said.

"If there is a problem that people don't seem to trust or understand something, it is not people's job to go after science, it is science’s job to do things differently or do things better.

“Wikipedia is a great platform for that, because there scientists and the lay public work on the same texts, the same knowledge, under the same rules.”

There are still a lot of “preconceptions and scepticism” about Wikipedia, Mr Harangozo said, but it is more reliable than people think, with several studies finding its content high quality when compare to scientific journals.

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“Wikipedia doesn't pretend to be a reliable source in the sense of ‘please use me in your PhD as a source’. It is an encyclopaedia. It is a starting point, to get information and then it leads to other reliable sources,” he said.

“Many people think that just because anyone can edit it you’re free to do whatever you want, but actually there are very rigorous policies and guidelines on Wikipedia which try to ensure that you're writing from a neutral point of view, you're using reliable sources, and that all the statements that you put there are verifiable through those sources.”

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It is “extremely important” that more institutions begin to work with Wikipedia, which is used by billions of people to find medical information, he added.

The pandemic has been a challenge and an opportunity for medical information on Wikipedia, and Mr Harangozo believes it has risen to it well.

“Something that can be edited by anyone and is thought to be not necessarily reliable managed to keep up in this storm of misinformation, and really defend itself from fake news and misinformation,” he said, adding that Wikipedia remains “a reliable source in this very important and quickly changing atmosphere”.

Candace Imison, Associate Director of Evidence and Dissemination at the NIHR, also said the spread of misinformation about Covid and vaccines during the pandemic has highlighted the importance of trustworthy sources of information.

“Our collaboration with Wikimedia UK, through the new Wikimedian in residence role, provides the NIHR with a great opportunity to promote the evidence from health and social care research to a mass audience,” she said.

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