esculaap4-svgSometimes, you have to look beyond your immediate surroundings and apply your knowledge to help humanity. At least, that’s how I feel. I’ve been in the content industry for almost 30 years. I’ve spent most of my life working with fabulous, exciting high-tech companies, large and mighty manufacturing companies, and bleeding-edge life sciences companies. It’s been exhilarating. It’s been rewarding.

It wasn’t until I joined the board of Translators Without Borders that I really began to feel a connection between my knowledge and saving people’s lives. That connection is a feeling that is hard to put into words.

A few years ago, I was invited to join a team of like-minded people at UCSF Medical School on a project called WikiProject: Medicine. The basis of the program is simple:

Take a group of fourth year medical students and have them increase the quality of medical articles on Wikipedia.

Quality is a big word. And increasing the quality is an even bigger task. Here are some of the things our medical students focus on:

  • Is the article complete?
  • Is the article accurate?
  • Are the references cited properly?
  • Is the article readable?

It’s this last point, “Is the article readable?” that I focus on.

I don’t know about you, but any time I get a bump, a bruise, or a stubbed toe, I go out to Wikipedia to look up what the problem could be. Most of the time, I either cannot understand a word of what is in the article, or I think I’m going to die a long, slow death from some terrible disease. It’s all gobble-di-gook for me.

I work with the students to simplify the English in the articles – particularly in what’s called the lede of each article. The lede is the beginning few paragraphs of a Wikipedia article, before the table of contents.

We’ve run the rotation a number of times, always with a new group of bright-eyed students. Each and every time, the response is the same. They say that the most difficult part of their assignment is making the articles easier to read. Imagine that. It’s easier to add medical details and fix references than it is to write clearly and simply.

Our work has garnered a lot of publicity. Most recently, an article that the team authored was featured in a medical journal called Academic Medicine. There are lots of statistics and metrics in the article. And my job was to edit the article for…you guessed it…simplicity and readability. I didn’t win all of the battles (after all, it is a medical journal), but here is the article for you to review.

Val Swisher
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