NIH to Edit Wikipedia – A Slippery Slope?
by Roger Strother*, 7/28/2009
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has initiated a program to encourage its scientists to edit and create articles in the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a widely used free resource on the web often criticized for its lack of reliability that results from its open editing format.
Such government involvement in the internet encyclopedia is not new and has been problematic in the past. The purpose for this program is, according to the Washington Post, “to make that online information more reliable.” However, when government employees from the CIA and FBI edited articles on the Iraq War and Guantanamo in 2007, the public reached a different conclusion. The agencies removed aerial and satellite imagery and altered casualty statistics in a way that was misleading.
The difference between the efforts in 2007 and the current one? In 2007, the agency individuals who edited the site were not operating as part of an official government program. Instead, they were individuals operating based on personal interest and motives. In the current effort, government employees are being trained on how to edit Wikipedia and encouraged to do so representing a potential conflict of interest of immense proportions. It’s a big enough problem to keep the politics out of science within the government; now it seems that the government may impose its issues on the public if it is not vigilant.
Further, if the government wants its information to be authoritative it should keep it on its own sites. Just because NIH edits the articles on Wikipedia does not mean that the articles are accurate even if the information submitted by NIH is unbiased. There is nothing stopping another user from going in 5 minutes after an NIH scientist and adding misleading information or removing information. Thus, the NIH would do better to build its own technological resources for public outreach in-house.