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Wikipedia is already the world’s web doctor – so doctors and researchers need to make it better

Medical entries on Wikipedia are widely consulted across the world.

Health professionals have a duty to improve the accuracy of medical entries in Wikipedia, according to a letter published today in Lancet Global Health, because it’s the first port of call for people all over the world seeking medical information.

In our correspondence, a group of international colleagues and I call on medical journals to do more to help experts make Wikipedia more accurate, and for the medical community to make improving its content a top priority.

Use around the world

Ranked the fifth most-visited website in the world, Wikipedia is one of the most-read sources of medical information by the general public. It’s also frequently the first port of call for doctors, medical students, lawmakers, and educators.

Access is provided free of charge on mobile phones in many countries, under the Wikipedia Zero scheme. In developing nations, this has helped the site become the main source of information on medical topics. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for instance, page views of the Ebola virus disease peaked at more than 2.5 million per day.

Earlier this year, the site launched the free Medical Wikipedia Offline app in seven languages. The Android app has had nearly 1,00,000 downloads in its first few months of release. It’s particularly useful in low and middle-income countries, where internet access is typically slow and expensive.

All this makes Wikipedia’s accuracy vital because every medical entry on the collaborative online encyclopedia has the potential for immediate real-world health consequences.

A question of priorities

Given its model of allowing anyone to edit entries, Wikipedia is already surprisingly accurate, famously rivalling Encyclopedia Britannica. But even as the online encyclopedia matures, the accuracy of its medical content remains inconsistent.

The platform has historically struggled to attract expert contributions from researchers. Improving Wikipedia entries tends to be low on the list of priorities for doctors and other health professionals.

Finding time to write unpaid content in an unfamiliar format can easily lose out to more immediate career concerns. Doctors consistently work long hours with patients, and researchers tend to be busy applying for grants and publishing in academic journals.

The entry on stillbirth illustrates well why Wikipedia needs to attract more expert contributors. Every day, there are 7,000 stillbirths worldwide, but before my colleagues and I updated the Wikipedia page, it was was missing crucial information.

It didn’t mention key causes, such as malaria, and common complications, such as depression. Having the full picture of a medical condition is extremely important for effective health care. And it’s vital for patients as well. Knowing that depression is a normal side effect of stillbirth, for instance, can help women cope with the emotional fallout.

Similarly, accurate information on medication affects what doctors prescribe, what patients request, and what students learn.

Such important topics quite simply demand accuracy.

Possible solutions

While spotting the shortfall is easy, solving it will require the concerted efforts of multiple communities with unique strengths.

Wikipedia has historically struggled to attract expert contributions from time-poor researchers and doctors.  Garnet/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Wikipedia has historically struggled to attract expert contributions from time-poor researchers and doctors. Garnet/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Doctors and researchers can provide expert knowledge about complex topics; medical journals can leverage their infrastructure for robust peer review and indexing; Wikipedians can provide their experience in encyclopedic writing and technical expertise; and medical schools can encourage student involvement.

Simultaneously publishing peer-reviewed work in academic journals and in Wikipedia could benefit all participants. This would include both putting existing entries through academic peer review, and converting suitable journal articles into Wikipedia entries. Official recognition of authors’ efforts through their citeable publications by scholarly journals is an important reward for time-pressed contributors.

Peer review would ensure the quality of content, and for journals wanting to have an impact on public health, Wikipedia is the among the best outreach tools available.

Several scholarly journals have been exploring academic peer review of Wikipedia entries and more look to soon join them. Examples of joint-publishing include the Wikipedia articles for Dengue fever and the cerebellum, which have been reviewed and published by the medical journals Open Medicine and the WikiJournal of Medicine respectively.

PLOS Computational Biology similarly joint-publishes review articles in its journal and in Wikipedia for maximum impact. And, the journal RNA Biology requires researchers describing a new RNA family to also write a Wikipedia entry for it.

Embedding the new approach

Progress has been slow, but several independent ventures show how the attitudes of major players in the biomedical ecosystem are beginning to shift further, and take Wikipedia more seriously.

Cochrane, which creates medical guidelines after reviewing research data, now finds Wikipedian partners for its Review Groups to help disseminate their information through Wikipedia.

Medical schools are also getting involved in improving Wikipedia entries. Medical students at University of California, San Francisco, can gain course credit for supervised editing of Wikipedia articles in need of attention.

These and similar schemes can hopefully normalise Wikipedia editing within future medical community. And patients will ultimately be the winners. When it comes to health content, the deadline is now.

Thomas Shafee, Research Fellow in Biochemistry and Evolution, La Trobe University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

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The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.