Friday, April 21, 2006

Science blogging and publishing: the medical wikipedia concept of Peter Frishauf

This week has seen very active discussion in the blogosphere on the concept, intent, and goals of science and medical blogging. My colleague, Bora/Coturnix, started this iteration on defining science blogging over at Science & Politics. Much of the ensuing discussion has focused on presenting data and hypotheses for open consumption, with several arguments that doing so might create an environment for a young investigator and/or small laboratory to be "scooped" by some larger group. Bill Hooker was most vocal in Bora's comments and in a separate post at his own Open Reading Frame on how "scoopers" should be shunned by the scientific community.

Our little discussion here caught the attention of Medscape founder and medical communications pioneer, Peter Frishauf. For those of you not registered with Medscape, it is well worth the time to go through the free-access process if for nothing else than to read Peter's account of the first 5 years of Medscape. I've had the honor of meeting Peter in person and am amazed at his continuing vision of the internet as a communication and lifestyle vehicle.

Peter's comment on my recent post linked to his editorial earlier this year on medical wikipedias and the possibility for conventional medical publishing to become obsolete (free registration required).

It's a rare opportunity to have a discussion with one of the visionaries of our time, so I thank Peter for coming over and commenting. My personal feeling, and one admittedly vested as a practicing scientist, is that a medical wikipedia is a great idea for topics normally covered in conventional scientific reviews.

But I do have some questions about completely replacing the peer-review process with complete open-access and open-editing, particularly given the anti-science and anti-intellectual climate that operates in some areas of the ether. It is clear that this sentiment is now metastasizing into the medical and scientific realm.

For example, Orac's part 4 of his medicine and evolution series recently led to a contentious comment thread and follow-up post on medical students or MDs who lack critical thinking skills, promote untested alternative therapies, or deny evolution in favor of intelligent design. I've also seen enough anti-vaccination crusaders and mercury-autism advocates use the internet to promote flawed science to make me concerned about editing of medical wikipedia entries by anyone with an internet connection. Some of the information I've read on cancer patient support sites regarding alternative medicine is downright dangerous - I could immediately see medical liability problems in hosting a medical wikipedia

There are also practical questions regarding promotion and tenure in academia as it is very tightly linked to one's ability to demonstrate independent scientific contributions through first-author, peer-reviewed, original research publications. How does one quantify if you have made a seminal contribution to a wikipedia since there is no attribution in this medium.

Science blogging at least offers an opportunity for attribution of ideas and their popularity via hit counts or links by fellow scientists. I foresee a time in the very near future where academics will get some credit for their blogging activities in their annual performance reviews and reports of scholarly activities often required by chairpersons and deans. For example, I try to use Terra Sigillata to raise public awareness and critical thinking about drug, herb, and alternative medicine issues - I view these activities as consistent with my academic mission.

Most of those I have met in the blogosphere aren't writing for credit or career advancement. Instead, most write out of a love for science and a return to a time where civil scientific discussion was central to the academic life, a sharp contrast to much of today's backstabbing intensified by the increasingly competitive funding climate. In fact, I believe I commented somewhere on Prof Janet Stemwedel's Adventures in Ethics and Science that I hope the civility and camaraderie I have encountered among science bloggers is not replaced by the harshness and cynicism of modern academic life; Bill Hooker responded that his hope is for the tone and sense of community among science blogs to return the real-life side of science back to where it was years ago.

But I digress,

This weblog newbie is humble enough to admit that I may not recognize the many strengths that might be offered by development of a medical wikipedia - and am certainly humble enough to want to have a discussion with my friend and medical communications visionary together with other interested readers.

I am eager to learn more about Peter Frishauf's vision for a medical wikipedia and the benefits and shortcomings that I might not yet see.


At Fri Apr 21, 10:37:00 AM EDT, Anonymous anjou said...

For patients, the web opens the opportunity for ready access to good info and nonsense. Alt med folks, and lay folks who proclaim themselves as experts on diseases like cancer, often cherry pick abstracts and info on the web that supports their bias without real understanding of scientific method or real critical thinking, make wild claims and recommendations based on in vitro and in vivo data, often with rather unusual and bizarre interpretations of immune system functioning. They post these selected abstracts they find on the web (most often never reading the full article) and present their ideas as well researched and abuse the term "evidence based." Unfortunately, this is often very convincing to the lay public. On some patient support boards folks challenge this type of thinking, but its a never ending battle!

Thankfully there are blogs hosted by scientists and doctors as well as sites on medical journalism ( ) that aid in the battle against the dangerous misinfo put out there.

So, thanks to all of you science bloggers who do what you do!!

At Fri Apr 21, 11:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger coturnix said...

I saw the comment last night and followed the link to the editorial on Medscape. I really like the idea of a medical Wiki and, from what I understand, the editing would be restricted to registered users (unlike Wikipedia), which means that Editors could approve only people with relevant qualifications (MD or PhD or excellent record in medical blogging). This should prevent alties and quacks from editing entries on the Wiki.

At Fri Apr 21, 11:54:00 AM EDT, Blogger Bill Hooker said...

How does one quantify if you have made a seminal contribution to a wikipedia since there is no attribution in this medium.

As coturnix notes, there's a simple technical fix for this: authenticated posting.

I don't forsee strong competition between wikis (repositories of information) and blogs (trusted agents for timely information). You might look up "stem cells" on the wiki, but if you wanted to know more about that CNN report on a "stem cell breakthrough", you'd read your favourite science blog/s.

At Sun Apr 30, 03:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Peter Frishauf said...


Thanks for all the kind words. I want to emphasize that in my editorial I said some variant of Wikipedia for medicine would be welcome. Larry Sanger, PhD, a Wikipedia co-founder, is working on just such a venture, to be run by the Digital Universe Foundation.

I want to emphasize that one huge advantage of the Wiki format is that you can read one article enhanced by the wisdom of many, as opposed to having to wade through multiple articles containing the wisdom of a few authors and the people they chose to site. There is no reason we can't marry scientifically-rigourous peer review to the wiki!

Finally, peer review is just one form of a reputation system, and there are many that could be used to assure good science. I will post more about this in the future.


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