Undergrad Allen Clifford, left, and Prof. Glen Pyle

No scientist worth a lab coat would use Wikipedia alone to publish findings about a new heart drug. But biomedical sciences professor Glen Pyle had more in mind when he assigned his cardiology class to write articles for the online encyclopedia this past semester.

Besides making better researchers, his goal was to turn out better science communicators. He wanted his fourth-year undergrads to grasp the need to share their work with the general public, whether as doctors talking to patients or as scientists applying for grants.

“As a physician, you’re taking information and you have to explain it to non-scientists,” he says. University scientists competing for research dollars also aim to write and speak for a more general audience, although with mixed results. “That’s where a lot of researchers are falling down. Without an ability to explain our research to the public, it is difficult to justify continued funding.”

He asked the 35 students in his inaugural cardiology course to write Wikipedia articles about heart drugs not covered in an existing online page. Those articles were then reviewed for accuracy by the professor and other students.

Pyle also encouraged students to post their articles online. About two dozen took up that challenge.

Rebecca Halls wrote about a drug used to treat atrial fibrillation, or irregular heart rhythm. “I think the main writing challenge was pulling information from primary research sources and having to simplify and generalize the content. I got past this by first looking into other sources and then back-checking and verifying this information with primary articles,” she says.

She now plans to pursue a master’s degree in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. “It was kind of exciting, knowing that you contributed something to this massive network of growing knowledge.”

The class had discussed problems with Wikipedia, notably questions about its accuracy. Noting that experts and novices alike can write and edit online pages, Pyle says, “There’s a debate about how reliable those facts are. We can complain about what’s there or try to fix and enhance the site by providing information for it.”

He stressed the need for students to review primary studies and journal articles before writing their Wikipedia entries.

By the time Allen Clifford had finished his final exam, his article on another anti-arrhythmia agent had remained on the site for a month. “You learn in high school and university that Wikipedia is not an entirely trustworthy source because anyone can ‘edit’ it,” he says. “However, I challenge anyone to make a change to a well-maintained Wikipedia page without using a proper source or defending your actions to other Wiki users.”

Ask Rory Peca, who couldn’t believe it when someone flagged his article for deletion only 15 minutes after it had been posted. “I had made my user name for Wikipedia the same as my drug, and a user thought that I had posted on behalf of a drug company,” he says. “All the articles must be unbiased, and this user felt that I was promoting a drug, so they marked it for deletion.

“I eventually worked things out after I changed my user name. It was crazy to think that there were people out there reviewing and verifying new content published to Wikipedia, and doing it so quickly.”

His article on an experimental heart drug was still up by late April.

Pyle says his students’ writing improved during the semester, particularly as they learned to drop “flowery language” and complicated terms. “By the end, they were much more concise and simple in their writing, which is what you want.”

He plans to repeat the assignment next year.

Sharpening students’ writing and presentation skills is the goal of a project in another course where he assigns groups to write journal articles based on their own research projects. He’s also thinking about challenging students to explore other media such as YouTube videos. “I’m just trying to use different tools to teach important skills.”