Countering vaccine misinformation via Wikipedia

In the middle of a global pandemic, the public turned to Wikipedia for information about vaccines. Pageviews on articles related to vaccines spiked as people sought neutral, fact-based information from a source they trusted — Wikipedia — amidst a sea of disinformation on social media.

One such article that saw massive pageviews is the one on attenuated vaccines. But if you had looked at the page in October 2020, you wouldn’t have found much — mostly text in bullet points, and a warning banner at the top, alerting readers that the article needed additional citations. Today, the article is extensive, with sections on development, administration, mechanism, safety, history, advantages and disadvantages, and an extensive list of attenuated vaccines. The article cites 64 sources, peer-reviewed publications that meet Wikipedia’s strict standards for medical content.

Abdullah AlShenaiber head shot
Abdullah AlShenaiber
Image courtesy Abdullah AlShenaiber, all rights reserved.

The improvements to the article are all thanks to a group of students in Denise Smith’s public health class at McMaster University. Abdullah AlShenaiber is one of the students who dramatically improved the article.

“It was heartbreaking to learn about the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy and disinformation online. As a group, we sought to address the issue as we understood how crucial it is to disseminate credible health information that is accessible in both delivery and language. We found the mechanism of attenuated vaccines particularly interesting and were especially attracted to the topic because of its current relevance. There has been some talk in the media of live-attenuated COVID-19 vaccines in-development,” Abdullah says. “While there is widespread use of attenuated vaccines (e.g., in measles, mumps, rubella, polio) many readers may be unaware of what an attenuated vaccine is and how it works. The Wikipedia article for attenuated vaccines was very limited in scale; it lacked high quality references, a detailed lead section, and information on subtopics typically provided in other articles such as its mechanism and safety. This makes it difficult for a person reading the article to fully understand the topic due to insufficient resources. Hence, our group decided to focus on the attenuated vaccine article in hopes of improving its quality and its gaps in scientific information.”

Abdullah tackled the lead section, expanded the development section, and wrote an entirely new section on safety. His classmates, Emma and Tal, added additional content to the article.

“We found the safety section to be the most challenging to address considering how prevalent vaccine hesitancy is. It was particularly difficult to balance presenting objective information while mitigating safety concerns or potential avenues for misinformation regarding vaccines,” Abdullah explains. “We worked as a group through this section with the instructor’s advice and had several revisions by all members to ensure the language and information used is appropriate and not misleading. For example, in the beginning of the safety section, we ascertain the safety and efficacy of attenuated vaccines while making it clear that there are extremely rare occasions of severe adverse effects. We cited secondary and tertiary sources (e.g., governments sites, WHO, systematic reviews, and academic textbooks) to ensure that readers can refer to reliable and informative references. We attempted to use objective language and were clear that there is a small degree of stability and safety concerns, such as in its administration to pregnant mothers or to severely immunocompromised individuals. We hope that the section makes it clear that vaccines are very safe, while not misleading the lay reader or contributing to vaccine hesitancy or concern.”

Abdullah and his classmates learned how to contribute thanks to Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program, which provided training on how to edit Wikipedia, including information on specific sourcing requirements for medical articles like the attenuated vaccine article the group was working on.

“Compared to a traditional assignment, our Wikipedia assignment felt unconventional and insightful,” Abdullah says. “It was very involved, collaborative, and required on-going reflection between yourself and other editors. As a Wikipedia editor, you have a duty to provide credible health information, collaborate with colleagues, and learn from your peers. I believe collaboration is a fundamental pillar in editing articles. Having lovely classmates and editors provide suggestions, diverse perspectives, and constructive discussion was extremely valuable in my learning and development in appraising scientific research and navigating the editing platform. It was truly a unique opportunity to disseminate information to the public. It felt like we were serving our community and left a lasting impact in improving health information online.”

Abdullah found his favorite part of the assignment was how collaborative it was and seeing its impact with his peers. He checked the Wiki Education Dashboard and watched the pageviews climb, as more and more people read his work. He tried to engage other Wikipedians to discuss their work on the article’s Talk page, and was excited when others made minor edits to his contributions. Since Abdullah and his classmates started improving the article, it’s received more than 130,000 pageviews.

“After editing the attenuated vaccine article with my group, I felt extremely proud and pleased of our contributions, especially considering how important it is to disseminate reliable information regarding vaccines,” Abdullah says. “I began to appreciate my role as a student in consuming health information, fostering collaboration and community, and applying my learning to communicate relevant health information to the public.”

Abdullah recently graduated from McMaster University’s Bachelor of Health Sciences program and is continuing his studies at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine in the fall. The Wikipedia assignment helped him develop skills in critically appraising sources of health information that he hopes to apply in his career, looking for key factors like the author, methodology, references, conflicts of interest, validity of interpretation, and risk of biases, he says. He learned to look beyond the stigma Wikipedia has to understand the value of providing accessible health information on an open platform.

“The experience allowed me to appreciate Wikipedia’s central role as an accessible health resource,” he says. “After getting acclimated with the editing process, working on an article with peers, and reading research surrounding the platform, I learned that Wikipedia can act as a reliable health resource for the lay reader when used appropriately; this includes taking into account quality ratings, evaluating the article’s writing, and referring to other credible sources to supplement our knowledge.”

And he wants to keep sharing his knowledge on Wikipedia — both in health information and in topics he cares about beyond medicine.

“With the skills I’ve learned, I believe I have a responsibility to become an active producer of health information,” he says. “I learned valuable skills in evaluating and editing Wikipedia that I would love to keep applying in the future.”

Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your class? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for more information.

Image credit: Cpl. Jackeline Perez Rivera, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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