A room with a view: Wikipedia – a simple strategy for pharma?

Alex Butler


Continued from “A room with a view: the six challenges of digital (part 2)

In this article I would like to propose what could be a simple transparent stepping stone for pharma in gaining more influence over one of the most powerful sources of information on the internet.

First we have to start briefly at the beginning, so bear with me.

Encyclopaedia’s are dangerous, controversial, exciting and in many ways the story of the encyclopaedia encapsulates the political and social power of information and knowledge through the ages.

The dream of gathering the world’s knowledge in single place in as ancient desire and Wikipedia’s own history article cites the Library of Alexandria and Pergamon as examples.

Many historians believe the first encyclopaedia dates from the collected works of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). His works spanned an amazing broad range of subjects including philosophy, physics and metaphysics.

He also left a huge legacy of work detailing his studies in biology and medicine including amongst other things a classification of living things and was a huge influence on Hellenistic medicine. From the earliest attempts collating, storing and making sense of human knowledge, medicine has been a central and essential component.


“From the earliest attempts collating, storing and making sense of human knowledge, medicine has been a central and essential component.”


Both the example of ancient libraries and of Aristotle himself reflect the method of distributing knowledge in existence until very recently: that of gathering information into one essentially static place so that it can be shared. I believe that this has switched around so we now, through the power of a networked world, can share in order that we can gather in a dynamic and fluid manner.

So let’s jump forward 2300 years to the founding of Wikipedia in 2001. There had been numerous attempts to develop internet based encyclopaedia projects and for a brief period the most notable English language book based encyclopaedia the Encyclopedia Britannica looked to have been replaced by Microsoft with the CD-ROM, hyperlinked, Encarta-still essentially static.

Wikipedia took off very quickly with over 20,000 articles created in the first year. Today the English language Wikipedia alone has 3.7 million articles. If we look at all languages other than English we are talking about 9.25 million articles in over 250 languages. With an unmatchable search equity Wikipedia has become the first stop for information around the globe, recently a survey revealed that 60% of European doctors consult Wikipedia regularly for professional reasons (this increased to 69% when all social media platforms were included).

It is undoubtedly the first place the public and patients look when searching for information on health and medicine.

Many people have said this is a bad thing, because well, Wikipedia is not accurate is it? Surely this is dangerous?

Wikipedia isn’t supposed to be perfect. It is not possible for any collation of human knowledge to be ‘accurate’ or as some people would describe it ‘right’. No encyclopaedia has ever been 100% correct and in fact the venerable leather bound Encyclopædia Britannica was regularly criticised for both inaccuracy and even social bias ( look at examples ranging from mathematicians such as L.C Karpinski, art critics such as W.H. Wright and even Virginia Woolf ).

Furthermore, many studies have shown that Wikipedia can be trusted, one such study I have seen referenced claimed that in every article Encyclopædia Britannica made 4 mistakes for Wikipedia’s 3.


“It is undoubtedly the first place the public and patients look when searching for information on health and medicine.”


The project works and it is a responsibility for pharmaceutical companies to become an active and transparent contributor to the phenomenon. I do not mean however that pharma should attempt to create ‘accurate’ articles from the perspective of the company, i.e. the old obsession with control.

I am talking about understanding that it can become part of a worldwide community who come together to produce a wonderful resource, free to all, that holds a central truth.

The acceptance that pharma needs to come to grips with this issue is nicely summarised by Andrew Widger, Director Media Relations Europe Middle East Africa for Pfizer:

“Companies publish information on the web with the hope that it will be consumed, understood and benefit. While standard copyright allows for third parties to ask a company if they can reuse information, the process seems dated in the fast moving world of digital publishing. It’s a case of looking at ways in which information can be shared effectively with those who want to use it appropriately, and extend its reach and benefit, in the digital world.”

So how can we take the first steps down the road of a more fluid exchange of information? Join the commons.

You cannot ‘control’ and take responsibility for everything on Wikipedia that pertains to your products or your company. The terms and conditions of Wikipedia make it clear that it is not a platform for the promotion of your company or your brands whatever you sell.

The emphasis on consensus over credentials has been described as the anti-elitist core of Wikipedia and although studies have concluded that over 50% of edits were contributed by 0.7% of the users other studies have shown that users with low edit counts provide information of similar value to that of the core group.

If you can help those people motivated to edit information relevant to you through the provision of commonly available resources free from copyright restrictions and available without the need for request you are likely able to influence the accuracy and quantity of material produced.


“The project works and it is a responsibility for pharmaceutical companies to become an active and transparent contributor to the phenomenon.”


An easy way to do this immediately as a pharmaceutical company is through the Commons project that encompasses Wikimedia for media files, Wikisource, an online library of free content textural sources and even Wikinews.

We need to start making the content and information we have readily and easily available by those who could best utilise it.

Do I mean that we cannot or should not edit Wikipedia ourselves as pharmaceutical companies? No, not at all. If we combine full use of the commons with a broader strategy of engagement with the online science community (including networked medics such as Bertalan Mesko) and targeted intervention on Wikipedia in an open, fully disclosed manner. I would focus on the correction of dangerous errors or provision of high quality referenced information where it is currently lacking. As an obvious example we can get very involved with articles directly about the company such as information on the corporation, providing the best source of accurate referenced information.

Thinking in this manner we can start to shape a sustainable strategy.

Alex’s next blog post will be published on 1st July

About the author:

Alex Butler is a global thought leader in health care social media for the pharmaceutical industry with the implementation of a number of innovative projects, including the UK’s first pharma twitter account and the world’s first facebook disease community with open comments and post moderation. He is a regular speaker and writer for the pharmaceutical, marketing, communications and technology press. According to John Mack, Alex is the most followed pharmaceutical company employee on twitter in the world and was the inaugural recipient of the Pharmaguy Global Social Media Pioneer award in 2010.

Alex currently works for Janssen as EMEA Marketing Communications Manager, part of the Johnson &amp, Johnson Strategic Marketing team.

Passionate about new marketing and advertising models Alex is an invited member of the Wharton University Future Of Advertising Global Advisory Board, based in Philadelphia.

Connect with Alex on twitter and also on Linkedin.

What opportunities does Wikipedia offer pharma?