Women have been notably absent from the world’s ubiquitous online encyclopedia. Megan Toomey reports on local efforts to shift Wikipedia’s gender balance.
Ingrid Scheffer revolutionised the study of epilepsy, leading her research group in 1995 to the discovery and identification of the first gene connected to the neurological disorder.
Following that breakthrough, Professor Scheffer, a paediatric neurologist and professor at Melbourne University’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, helped identify more than half of the genes known to be directly linked to epilepsy – paving the way for better treatment of the cryptic illness.
She has won several awards for her groundbreaking achievements and, just last month, added to her many accolades the nation’s most prestigious award for scientists, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.
But until this week, typing her name into Google revealed a telling gap in the search results where a notorious encyclopaedia link would normally appear: Ingrid Scheffer had no Wikipedia page.
In fact, Professor Scheffer (at left) was hardly alone in this regard. Many other Australian women scientists had no dedicated Wikipedia entry either, a failure that some Australian establishments have been looking to rectify in recent months.
“A fairer representation of women’s contributions to science, especially on a globally important site like Wikipedia, will contribute to redressing gender imbalances in the perception, promotion and representation of women in science,” said Michele Veldsman, a postdoctoral research fellow and member of the Equality in Science (EqIS) Committee at Scheffer’s Florey Institute.
On November 6, the committee became the third Australian group to wield the power of the Wikipedia edit-a-thon – or “Wikibomb”, as local editors have come to coin it – in the name of women scientists.
A Wikibomb is as much a social event as it is an edifying exercise that invites participants to add pages to Wikipedia on an under-represented or incomplete topic. It brings together new editors to broaden the reach of the website’s subject matter, also raising awareness of a particular subject.
The Florey Institute’s mission was to add more pages on notable women neuroscientists, including a page for Professor Scheffer.
Dr Veldsman said that the limited presence of women neuroscientists online is part of a wider problem of notable women in science being generally absent from Wikipedia’s vast compendium. “This may be the result of the lack of female editors, which many think contributes to many gender-related biases in entries on the site,” she added.
To accommodate first-time editors, the Equality in Science Committee emailed links to Wikipedia’s editorial tutorials to participants in advance. The committee also created a template page on which participants could build their work, as a means of showing that Wikipedia was user-friendly and that building Wikipedia pages could be equal parts fascinating and fun.
Neuroscience honours students Ariel Zeleznikow-Johnston and Katie Drummond were among the 20 people who participated in the Florey Wikibomb, essentially because they felt that the underrepresentation of women in science needed to be redressed.
Together they worked on adding a Wikipedia page for Professor Lorraine Dennerstein, who founded the world’s first academic centre for women’s health, and went on to help establish many others. She also created postgraduate courses that provided a model for use in universities around the world, and has been involved in dozens of women’s health organisations, offices and committees both in Australia and internationally.
“It is remarkable that a woman like Lorraine Dennerstein – who has accomplished so much – doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet,” said Drummond.
Zeleznikow-Johnston added: “Especially considering how students can rely on Wikipedia as a broad reference point for research.”
Such was the fervour of the participants that by the end of the event, 18 new Wikipedia pages had been created, most of which are still awaiting formal approval to go ‘live’.
Florey’s event was the third edit-a-thon to crop up in Australia. The second had been held just a week before by the University of Sydney, which hosted its own Wikibomb dedicated to adding profiles of notable women in academia associated with the university, including women of science. Organised by Professor Kathy Belov, of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, it created 55 new Wikipedia pages.
Both events were inspired by Australia’s first “women in science” edit-a-thon, held in August during National Science Week. It was hosted by the Canberra-based Australian Academy of Science, which actually concocted the name “Wikibomb”, and produced 118 new Wikipedia entries.
Each “women of science” Wikibomb was co-ordinated with help from Wikimedia Australia, part of the Wikimedia Foundation, which offers support and resources to Australians who want to create Wiki content. Indeed, the so-called gender gap on Wikipedia is a problem recognised and acknowledged by the foundation.
In an August 2009 report, it found that only 13 per cent of its contributors – known as Wikipedians – were women, a surprising discovery given the universal popularity of the website.
According to a 2011 Pew Report, over half of all adult American Internet users rely on Wikipedia for information, with 69 per cent of these people holding a university degree or higher qualification. A 2012 Pew Report revealed that Wikipedia ranked as the second-highest online research tool after Google and its search engine counterparts.
In response, Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, Sue Gardner, with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, set a goal to raise the number of female contributors on Wikipedia to 25 per cent by 2015.
“We know that the more diverse the editing community becomes, the more comprehensive, accurate and rich the encyclopaedia will be,” said Ms Gardner on the 10th anniversary of the encyclopaedia in 2001. But when asked by the BBC in August about the site’s progress, Mr Wales conceded that Wikipedia had “completely failed”.
“We’re really doubling down our efforts now,” he said in the interview. “We realise we didn’t do enough. There’s a lot of things that need to happen to help improve that. To get from around 10 per cent to 25 per cent – a lot of outreach, a lot of software changes – it’s a big job.”
Increasingly, edit-a-thons are being seen as a means of helping redress the gender imbalance. The first of its kind was organised by Wikimedia UK in January, 2011. Since then, more than 60 edit-a-thons have been held around the world.
The first of these dedicated specifically to women in science was organised by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC on March 30, 2012 as part of Women’s History Month.
The event was titled “She Blinded Me with Science: Smithsonian Women in Science Edit-a-Thon”. Although the chosen name of the event didn’t catch on, the idea did: the next two women in science edit-a-thons were set up in honour of English mathematician Ada Lovelace in October that same year. One was hosted at the Solidarity Hall in Stockholm, Sweden; the other by the Royal Society in London.
For the Royal Society, the event would become the first in a series of successful “Women in Science: Wikipedia workshops” held over the past two years.
After catching wind of the success of these edit-a-thons, the Australian Academy of Science began planning for its own in January, 2014.
“Part of the idea was to help people within science, and particularly women, to have a bit more confidence in terms of giving [Wikipedia] a go themselves,” said Bella Counihan, the academy’s media officer.
The efforts dove-tailed nicely with the Florey Institute’s own plans, which led to some timely guidance.
“They were incredibly helpful and gave us a lot of tips for organising our own event,” said Dr Veldsman, of Florey’s Equality in Science Committee. “They also gave full support and were happy to see more events like theirs. We liked the name Wikibomb and kept it in line with their event.”
Steven Zhang, the President of Wikimedia Australia, joined the Florey Institute’s “women of neuroscience” Wikibomb held last month to give a demonstration on editing and help participants with technical issues. He said that Wikimedia Australia had become more involved in edit-a-thons in the past year, and supported such initiatives.
“We’re trying to get more women involved [in Wikipedia editing] because it’s about the sum of all knowledge, not the sum of all male knowledge,” he told The Citizen.
Mr Zhang is often challenged about Wikipedia’s accuracy, given its community of self-appointed editors. He contends that while errors can be made – mistakes that are not specific to Wikipedia but could also appear in books or textbooks, he points out – Wikipedia has procedures to head off their proliferation.
“The reason Wikipedia is so reliable – and quite often more reliable than other forms of information – is because there are so many people watching it, and there are many ‘defence mechanisms’ in place.”
These include automated editing systems that flag, revert or remove obvious or purposeful errors – for example, changing a living person’s birth year to 1800. If an edit fails to meet the requirements of these mechanisms, the edit – or indeed, the Wikipedia page itself – can be rejected.
The guidelines for adding pages during an edit-a-thon are no different from the guidelines for all Wikipedia’s contributors. The Wikimedia Foundation has composed notability criteria for their editors to adhere to, as well as rules within those criteria which are subject-specific.
“Notability affects what’s in there and what’s not,” said Mr Zhang. “There’s criteria that needs to be met. Every category of article has criteria of what you need to be notable.”
For the “women in science” Wikibombs and edit-a-thons, the notability criteria for academics had to be met for each woman scientist. For its event, Florey’s Equality in Science Committee made sure that the nominated women neuroscientists passed muster, with Wikibomb participants choosing a scientist at random from names places in a bowl.
Dr Veldsman was encouraged by the event’s positive feedback. As a result, she said, the committee would consider hosting another event “perhaps focusing on neuroscientists more globally and opening it up more widely”.
The Florey Institute Wikibomb has already inspired a similar event at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Katherine Bryant, a PhD candidate in the neuroscience graduate program at Emory, learnt of the Florey event via Twitter. She contacted Dr Veldsman for advice on how to host an event.
Ms Bryant plans to host a similar edit-a-thon with the university’s graduate student club, Emory Women in Neuroscience, deciding to adopt the Australian label for the event, too. Emory’s Wikibomb is scheduled for March or April.
* This story was re-published by Daily Life.