The Wiki-fication of Medicine

by Sven Larsen

Physicist Michael Neilsen discussed open research in a March TEDX event, the video of which was recently posted.

As a rule, the academic community lives to publish. Mathematicians, scientists, researchers, think tanks, physicians, biomedical researchers: most times, their stock in trade is their byline. But just as a journalists byline has come to mean a position of curator of information rather than a sole creator, so this must change here too.

A journalist is now very likely to include citizen-journalism-sourced information in their story. Large Facebook groups are used as support for the events importance. Tweets break stories, or in the event of celebrity drama, can be the story themselves. Most traditional media outlets have blogs which are a second platform for the journalists. If that journalist tried to work without social media, or without the Internet as a whole, theyd be far less able to do their work – and theyd probably be thought crazy. Similarly, if a researcher tried to argue that they were going to use a fraction of the potential processing power of a computer to do their data analysis, in an attempt to remain authentic, theyd be laughed at.

So why do we still insist on research findings having to come from one person instead of from the collective intelligence of many working together? Why can we accept strength in numbers in every way except creative thought?In this age of online information, knowledge remains currency to an anachronistic degree. What should be the currency of our research – especially important medical research? Id argue that it should be curation and moderation: asking the right questions, getting brilliant minds to work together on it, and moving the discussion along.

But, as Neilsen points out, this goes against the grain. People are rewarded for publishing, not for gathering minds. So how can we change the status quo? As he says, the best way to do so is to acknowledge and promote open-science projects.

Ill go further. We work for, and with, some of the largest companies in the world. Can we use this power to support wiki projects? Doubtless, the elusive patent will make it unlikely that open medicine will trump profit-seeking anytime soon. But what about the parts of medicine beyond the patent?

Heres one idea. A pharmaceutical company could sponsor a wiki to improve patient care, with awards going annually to the hospital system who offered the most suggestions, as well as to the system which implemented the most suggestions to the greatest degree of improvement.

How can you become a champion for open medicine?

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