Tackling Wikipedia’s diversity problem, one page at a time

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and you can start articles about anything you like. And yet, as physicist Jess Wade notes, “somewhere between 84% and 91% of Wikipedia editors are male” and “only 17.7% of Wikipedia biographies written in English are about women.”

Why we’re editing women scientists onto Wikipedia
What we choose to edit is informed by what we know — not only in terms of our scientific expertise, but also from our own lived experiences. For women and people in other under-represented groups in science, that knowledge includes an intimate understanding of how our contributions are downplayed or outright erased from the history of science. The Wikipedia community should reflect the populations it serves — in race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The US National Science Foundation has invested money to understand and bridge the gender gap on Wikipedia, and we are hopeful that more efforts to better recognize the contributions of all other under-represented groups will follow.

It sounds like a huge, thankless task, though some appreciation and recognition seems to be coming her way.

Jess Wade one of Nature’s 10
Nature notes that when Jess started writing a Wikipedia page every day, she didn’t expect her efforts to earn her global attention. She was simply trying to correct the online encyclopaedia’s under-representation of women and people of colour in science. But in July, when she tweeted about a trollish comment she’d received about the work, it prompted an outpouring of support and a big boost for her quest. “That wouldn’t have happened without that one mean comment,” she says.

Meet the physicist on a mission to change perceptions of women in science
Dr Jess Wade has a much higher profile than most scientists conducting research into chiral organic light emitting diodes. When I mention to a friend that I’m interviewing the 29-year-old physicist, that friend – who has not been in a science lab since her GCSEs – brightens with recognition. “Oh, the Wikipedia scientist?” she says. “I’ve heard about her! She’s so cool!”

A physicist is writing one Wikipedia entry a day to recognize women in science
Wade, who works in printed electronics and creates light-emitting diodes, said she doesn’t find herself notable enough as a scholar. Yet Ben Britton, an engineer in the Department of Materials at her college, created a Wikipedia page about her. And Wikipedia hasn’t deleted it.

“I know I’m not notable enough yet as an academic, and it has become a space for trolls to nominate me for deletion and basically discuss how rubbish I am!” Wade said. “I’m much happier talking about how great other people are other than anything I’ve achieved.”

This isn’t just an issue with Wikipedia, though, as she explains in this interview with Wired.

We’re all to blame for Wikipedia’s huge sexism problem
The lack of diversity in science is not only an issue of equality, but impacts the science that we study, the real-world applications we create as well and the environments that researchers exist in. The questions scientists ask, the problems science seeks to solve, and the assumptions scientists bring to their research are all informed by researchers’ lived experiences.

Ensuring a diversity of experiences and backgrounds are included in the research endeavour is essential for correcting biases and pursuing a diverse set of questions. Representation of currently underrepresented groups is therefore not a mere matter of justice, but a requisite for doing good science.