In his keynote talk at the recent Medical Library Association annual meeting, Clay Shirky told the story of how Wikipedia, which is done by volunteers, has far surpassed the Medpedia project, which was founded in 2009 as an expert-doctor-produced system to compete with Wikipedia. Marcus Banks’s write-up of Shirky’s talk has a good segment on this:

Skirky contrasted the entry for biopsy on Wikipedia to that for biopsy on Medpedia, which utilizes physician editors rather than the unwashed masses.  Turns out that the Wikipedia entry is much more robust and developed, a thorough introduction to the topic of biopsy available to all. On the other hand, Medpedia offers a puny paragraph and calls it a day.

In fairness, Shirky does exaggerate the contrast a bit, in not mentioning that the Medpedia article has links to five specific types of biopsy. But those other articles are relatively short, and Shirky is right that the total amount of information in Wikipedia far exceeds Medpedia. So he’s certainly correct that Wikipedia has won the battle for the general medical online information market. Searching PubMed shows it: A search for wikipedia retrieves 83 articles; a search for medpedia retrieves 0 (zero!) articles. So, indeed, Medpedia has just never caught on.

Bertalan Meskó: “I believe elitism kills content”

Shirky said in his MLA talk that he had predicted when Medpedia launched that it would be a failure (confirmed here). He also mentioned that other commentators had similar questions about the purpose of Medpedia. One of those was the prominent Hungarian physician-blogger Bertalan Meskó (@berci). He’s a Wikipedia administrator, and echoes the sentiments of Shirky in questioning the need for Medpedia at the time of its launch in 2009 (boldface added):

When we have a Wikipedia, why do we need a Medpedia? … [do] we need Medpedia to provide reliable medical content? That’s what we are working on in Wikipedia. … I believe elitism kills content. Only the power of masses controlled by well-designed editing guidelines can lead to a comprehensive encyclopaedia.

Finally, a recently-published article gives more evidence for Wikipedia’s supremacy as the king of the medical information hill – Wikipedia: A Key Tool for Global Public Health Promotion, in Journal of Medical Internet Research (2011) is written by a group of Wikipedia medical administrators (including Meskó). The authors document the important place of Wikipedia in the online health information sphere, and make an appeal for more people with medical interests to participate as Wikipedia editors. Tellingly, the corresponding author, Michaël R Laurent, has an association with Medpedia — Apparently, from his leadership in Wikipedia, though, he’s decided it’s a better way to go than Medpedia.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

Google has been under attack recently, because its search results often seem to be overwhelmed by spam-generated links. On the other hand, Wikipedia has gotten many laudatory commentaries on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.

The timing here is interesting — Google, which is driven by computer-generated algorithms, is being “outsmarted” by human SEO engineers who have figured out how to “game” the system to get their sites a high ranking in searches. And Wikipedia, powered by smart human curators, has risen to become “a necessary layer in the Internet knowledge system.

I’ve looked at several of the tenth-anniversary commentaries discussing the uniqueness of Wikipedia, and it’s surprising that I haven’t seen any that note the significance of its being a human-generated tool. TheAtlantic had a good round-up of commentaries by 13 “All-Star Thinkers” — Some of them do talk about the importance of collaboration in the working of Wikipedia, but none of them make the more basic, and, to me, even more acute observation that, in this age of the computer, it’s done by human beings!

In the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia, in the section The Nature of Wikipedia is this interesting quote from Goethe:

Here, as in other human endeavors, it is evident that the active attention of many, when concentrated on one point, produces excellence.

Indeed — As my library school teacher used to say “if there were enough smart humans we wouldn’t need to rely on computers.”

So — Librarians Take Note! Have you ever considered becoming a Wikipedia editor? — On the occasion of the tenth anniversary, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is making an effort to foster more diversity in curation — He especially mentions reaching out to Libraries for help.

Finally, on a related thread — Another notable aspect of Wikipedia that hasn’t been mentioned in anniversary articles — Not only is it done by humans, but it’s done by humans on a volunteer basis — As I discussed in an earlier article, Daniel Pink uses this as a classic example of “intrinsic motivation” >> Wikipedia vs Encarta: The Ali-Frazier of Motivation.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

In its original meaning Elegance had to do with tasteful and graceful. In Sci-Tech-CompSci, it’s come to be associated with simplicity – surprisingly simple yet effective (Wikipedia) … cleverly simple (FreeDictionary) — I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the concept of simple design, especially in the context of  library user-interface (UI) issues and design for mobile devices. Recently, I’ve also been thinking about simplicity in the context of my experience with Hardin MD, remembering the value of list-keeping in pre-Google days — A simple task, but a surprisingly difficult one to execute.

Quality list-keeping, UI design and mobile design — those fit well within the concept of “simple” — But moving beyond those, I’m seeing that there are broader topics that I’ve been writing about that extend the concept of “simple” to something more like “elegant.” I think of there being a continuum from the simple list-keeping of the early Web to simple design to the full-fledged Elegance of the giants discussed below, and I see all of these as being motivated by the same instinct, and blending together so much that they’re hard to separate. So I’m making a new category — Elegance — and putting all of the blend into it — Simple to Elegant.

Here are some highlights of my recent articles – The boldface name links (Apple, Google, etc) go to all of the articles in the category. The links within each paragraph go to articles that are more specifically on elegance:

AppleSteve Jobs and Jonathan Ive have set the standard for elegant design, as stated in a recent iPad review – “Led by British-born Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design team has created another iconically elegant piece of hardware: the iPad.” (boldface by me)

Google – Like Apple, Google has contributed much set the standard for elegant design. I suspect when Google first became popular, the Wikipedia definition of “elegance” given above — “surprisingly simple yet effective” — is just what a lot of people thought — How could this young upstart, with a homepage that was made up of mostly white space compete against the link-laden gateway pages of the era?

Twitter – Tim O’Reilly captures the essence of Twitter’s secret, I think — In writing about why he loves Twitter the first reason he gives is – “Twitter is simple – It does one small thing, and does it well” — Again, echoing the Wikipedia definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective.”

And, of course … Wikipedia fits its own definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective” — Who would have predicted the simple idea of users making the best dictionary in the world?

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

After hearing Daniel Pink’s keynote at the recent Medical Library Association meeting, I watched his TED talk (The surprising science of motivation) and I found it at least as inspiring as his words at MLA. Pink’s ideas on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation are well-known — People doing creative tasks, he says, are more highly motivated by inner drives than they are by external rewards — I won’t go into detail about his thesis here — I’ll just talk about a couple of stories — One that Pink tells and a little follow-up of my own.

Pink’s story that I found especially interesting is about Wikipedia and Encarta. I’m transcribing it since I don’t find that anyone else has done it. Here’s a link to the segment of the video with the story:

In the mid-1990’s Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They employed all the right incentives. They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles. Well compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time. A few years later another encyclopedia started — A different model — Do it for fun. No one gets paid a cent or a euro or a yen. Do it because you like to do it. Now 10 years ago if you had talked to an economist … anywhere … and said “Hey, I’ve got these different models for creating an encyclopedia — If they went head to head who would win? 10 years ago you could not have found a single, sober economist anywhere on planet earth who would have predicted the Wikipedia model. This is the Titanic battle between these two approaches. This is the Ali-Frazier of motivation, right, this is the Thrilla in Manila, alright — Intrinsic motivators vs extrinsic motivators — Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose versus Carrots & sticks – And who wins — Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose — in a Knockout.

Great story, well told! Indeed, who would have predicted Wikipedia? Or, in the same vein, who would have predicted blogs and Twitter threatening to replace paid journalists?

My own little story — After returning from a long week at MLA, I watched the Pink video on Friday night of Memorial Day weekend. Partly inspired by Pink’s words and partly by ideas from MLA, I decided I’d spend some holiday time on Monday Twittering about the BP Gulf oil disaster — A subject out of my usual more “serious” use of Twitter but — Intrinsic Motivation 😉 —  It’s an area of personal interest, and a chance to put my Twitter skills to work to do a tiny bit to help save the world, maybe?

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumseytemp AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumseytemp

The list below is 50 consecutive random links to Wikipedia articles using the Random Article link that’s in all articles. As suggested in a recent study by Kittur, Chi & Suh (discussed below) I’ve divided these random articles into the top level Wikipedia categories. More interesting than these categories are other broad subjects (as picked out by me) in the articles below: Sports (7 articles), Pop Music (6), Europe (5), Politics (4), India (3). These subjects, I think, give a good flavor of the sorts of articles in Wikipedia.

Beyond the categories and sub-cats though — The most striking thing about this random sample of Wikipedia articles is the narrow, limited nature of the articles — Almost all of them are about things that No One Has Heard Of! — A great example of the Long Tail effect. Only in this case, it seems to be almost all Tail, and very little Head. Obviously, there are thousands of Wikipedia articles on well-known subjects, which we read every day. But in terms of numbers, the articles on minor, unheard-of subjects vastly outnumber the popular ones.

[There’s more commentary below following the list]



  • Brigadier General Anthony Stack
    Currently a Brigadier General in service of the Canadian Forces, 1 screen
  • Roy Orchard Woodruff
    Politician, soldier, printer and dentist from Michigan (1876 – 1953), 1 screen
  • Ed Bryant
    Former Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Tennessee, 1948- , 3 screens
  • Missy Higgins
    Australian singer-songwriter, 1983 – , 7 screens
  • Răzvan Sabău
    Romanian tennis player, 1977- , 1 screen
  • Mirza Rizvanović
    Bosnian football defender, 1 screen, Stub
  • Steve Byrne
    American stand-up comedian, 1974- , 1 screen, Stub
  • Joan Hambidge
    Afrikaans poet, literary theorist and academic, 1956- , 2 screens
  • Agim Kaba
    American-Albanian actor, writer, director, sound editor, dancer, and film producer, 1980- , 1 screen
  • Verda Welcome
    African-American teacher, civil rights leader, and Maryland state senator, 1907 – 1990, 2 screens
  • Harolyn Blackwell
    African-American lyric coloratura soprano, 1955- , 7 screens
  • Ron Sobieszczyk
    Retired American professional basketball player, 1 screen
  • John Cumberland
    Former Major League Baseball player and coach, 1947- , 1 screen, Stub


  • Cwmcarn Forest Drive
    Tourist attraction and scenic route in Cwmcarn, Crosskeys, Wales, 1 screen, Stub
  • Vila Chã
    Portuguese parish with 2,957 inhabitants and a total area of 5.49 km², 1 screen, Stub
  • Chojnowo
    Village in Krosno Odrzańskie County, Lubusz Voivodeship, western Poland, 1 screen, Stub
  • Interstate 17
    5 screens
  • Withee (Town) Wisconsin
    Town in Clark County in the US state of Wisconsin, with population of 885 at the 2000 census, 1 screen
  • Edson, Wisconsin
    Town in Chippewa County in the US state of Wisconsin, with population of 966 at the 2000 census, 1 screen




  • Swannia
    Genus of moth in the family Geometridae, 1 screen, Stub
  • Proflazepam
    Drug which is a benzodiazepine derivative, 1 screen, Stub




I’m assuming that the Random Article link used to derive these links is truly random, that it does give a good sample of all Wikipedia articles. Surprisingly, I have not been able to find a Wikipedia article on “Wikipedia Random Article,” or any other commentary on it that might give an idea about this. I also have found no indication that anyone else has attempted to make a list of random Wikipedia articles, as presented here. Please let me know in a Comment if I’m missing something!

The purpose of the Kittur, Chi & Suh paper (PDF) mentioned above was to map all Wikipedia articles to one of the top level Wikipedia categories. The articles in the list above fit their results fairly well for most of the categories. Here are their results and mine (in parentheses):

Culture: 30% (28%)
People: 15% (26%)
Geography: 14% (12%)
Society: 12% (8%)
History: 11% (10%)
Science: 9% (4%)
Technology: 4% (6%)
Religion: 2% (0%)
Health: 2% (0%)
Math: 1% (2%)
Philosophy: 1% (0%)

The assigning of categories by me is imprecise at best, so it’s not surprising that there’s not complete agreement between my findings and those of KCS. It’s also possible that the real division of categories has changed since KCS collected data for their study, in Jan, 2008. Finally, one more bit on KCS – Their paper has the same base title as this article (What’s in Wikipedia?) — I actually thought of this title before I found their paper — In fact I found their paper because I searched for the title after I thought of it for this article! So I don’t feel like I’m stealing their title 😉

Acknowledgement to my son David: The writing of this article is a long tale in itself! It arose from a (rather hair-brained, I now see) question I pondered — whether there’s a way to generate a “random Web page” from anywhere (The answer, I think is No, but that’s a separate discussion). As I discussed this idea with David, he mentioned the Random Article link on Wikipedia articles. I had actually never noticed this before, and found it quite interesting, which led to this article. Also David confirmed from his younger perspective that the links in the sample above are indeed obscure!

Note: These random links were generated over three separate days in the last week.

Eric Rumsey is on Twitter @ericrumseytemp