What Donna Strickland can teach us about the media and ourselves
All eyes this month were on the newest round of Nobel laureates being announced—that is, all eyes that weren't squarely focused on Wikipedia's coverage of one newly minted Nobel laureate in particular, Donna Strickland, who on 2 October became the third woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. As it turns out, we had an article on her previously: it was first deleted in 2014 as a copyright violation. Then, a draft at Articles for Creation was declined in May of this year for insufficient sourcing.
All this caused quite a stir, to say the least. But what was striking, at least to me, was not that it garnered as much attention as it did (the gender gap on Wikipedia is something many of us have been talking about for years), but instead how much of that attention seemed to completely miss the mark and, in many cases, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding among the media about what Wikipedia is and how it works.
Some targets are clearly just too easy. CNN-News18 offered up a mostly laughable collage of grossly uninformed tweets which would have you believe that "[e]very single @Wikipedia editor who voted against an entry for Dr. Donna Strickland needs to have their editing and voting privileges suspended for 6 months", as if we need to have a recount. Needless to say, Wikipedia does not work that way.
Other, more serious journalism still manages their own myriad problems. The Times called Strickland's winning the Nobel "one way to win a Wikipedia editing war", from which we can only conclude that they simply don't know what an edit war is. Fortune originally wrote that the draft had been deleted, while at the same time linking to the draft itself, which could be linked because, of course, it hadn't actually been deleted. To their credit, however, they at least amended their story on 5 October after I sent them an email.
One common theme appearing in a number of publications was that, in all their writing about Wikipedia, no one had apparently taken the time to read our policy on notability (we even have an article on it!) and had no indication how Articles for Creation works. The Guardian lambasted us for determining that Strickland was "not important enough", Business Insider for saying "she wasn't famous enough", with The Daily Beast echoing that she was "not famous enough for Wikipedia". Naturally, if they had taken the time to read our policy on notability, they would have made it to the fifth sentence noting that "[d]etermining notability does not necessarily depend on things such as fame, importance, or popularity" (emphasis in original). All this is notwithstanding the fact that rejections at Articles for Creation are not the end of the line, but are an avenue to provide feedback so that users can improve their submissions, make them ready for the mainspace, and finally publish them. Even Wikimedia Foundation director Katherine Maher, in her piece in the Los Angeles Times, fails to elucidate the difference between non-notable and not-ready-to-publish.
Another common theme was to point out that Gérard Mourou, who shared the prize with Strickland, had an article as early as 2005, as did The Independent, The Cut, and Vox. None of them seemed to notice, as Ian Ramjohn from the Wiki Education Foundation points out in his own post, that "[s]ince 2007, across the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology and Medicine, 91 scientists have received Nobel Prizes. Twelve of them, including Donna Strickland, didn't have a Wikipedia biography until after their Nobel Prize was announced."
|For a detailed list of laureates along with the creation dates of their Wikipedia articles, see this breakdown covering the past ten years, compiled by Markus Pössel.|
Perhaps my favorite is again from Vox, who opine that "[w]omen scientists like Vera Rubin, Nettie Stevens, Henrietta Leavitt, Rosalind Franklin, and so many others ought to be just as famous." Or, as I like to put it: "Women scientists like Vera Rubin , Nettie Stevens , Henrietta Leavitt , Rosalind Franklin , and so many others ought to be just as famous."
All this quickly resulted in Ed Erhart publishing his own response in the new Foundation website, attempting to summarize the events. Meanwhile, in her LA Times piece, Maher rightly recognizes that the gender gap is a serious issue that many people are working hard to combat, not least of whom are people in the vanguard like WikiProject Women in Red and WikiProject Women scientists. As she points out, these efforts have culminated in 86,182 new English-language biographies of women, which "works out to 72 new articles a day, every single day, for the past three and a half years." That is only 17.82% of biographies, however, so we've still got a ways to go.
But the relevant timeline the Foundation gives us, mirroring that offered by a number of sources, is this:
- 28 March 2018 – "a new volunteer Wikipedia editor ("Campbpt0") used the English Wikipedia's 'articles for creation' process to submit a draft for review"
- 23 May 2018 – "a volunteer editor declined it"
I'd like to propose an alternative timeline:
- 09:57, 2 October 2018 (UTC) – An English Wikipedia article was created by a user who edits almost entirely in English.
- 09:59, 2 October 2018 (UTC) – Two minutes later, a Wikidata item was created by a user who edits almost entirely in Russian. In the same minute, the user also created the Russian Wikipedia article.
- 10:15, 2 October 2018 (UTC) – Sixteen minutes later, a Spanish language article was created by a user who edits almost entirely in Spanish.
- 10:30, 2 October 2018 (UTC) – Within the next 15 minutes, articles are created in Chinese (10:22) and Indonesian (10:25).
- 17:30 2 October 2018 (UTC) – Over the next six hours, 15 additional language articles are created: German (12:05), Basque (12:20), Turkish (12:25), Polish (12:27), Italian (12:28), Swedish (12:32), French (12:33), Romanian (13:22), Dutch (12:34), Vietnamese (13:23), Ukrainian (14:28), Portuguese (14:35), Assamese (15:25), Galician (16:02), and Catalan (16:34).
- 09:57, 3 October 2018 (UTC) – Within 24 hours of the first page creation, encyclopedia articles have been written in 26 languages, a Simple English article has been created, and a category on Wikimedia Commons has been started.
- 09:57, 5 October 2018 (UTC) – Within 72 hours of the first page creation, 9 additional language encyclopedia articles are written, bringing the total to 36; the Commons category is being filled, in part with help from a user who is affiliated with The Optical Society, who has convinced them to release media under a free license; a Russian Wikinews page has been created; and the Wikidata item has been edited 197 times by 77 different contributors.
So while the media spent the days following the Nobel Prize announcement decrying an article we were missing, editors from around the world, who share no common language and have likely never interacted with each other, got busy; and they created resources for public access to free knowledge across multiple platforms, in dozens of languages, each of which will last—for all intents and purposes—forever.
We are working hard, and we are good at what we do. If we weren't, they wouldn't be writing about us; they'd be talking about our competitor, except we have no competitor. There is no one who tries so hard to give away free knowledge, and manages to give it away well enough that they're even in same ballpark as us, barely in the same game. For people who can't afford books, don't live near a library, barely have internet access, or have grown up with free knowledge being the standard, we are that standard.
If you're concerned about the gender gap in Wikipedia, you're right to be concerned, but as Fortune put it in the one thing they got unequivocally right, "anyone can write an entry in the gigantic online encyclopedia ... What are you waiting for, get busy."
If you've ever wanted to be a part of something unprecedented, we're doing it right now. Let's get to work.
Riled up: seeking changes to the academic notability guideline to help prevent a repeat incident
The Donna Strickland case has a number of Wikipedians riled up, myself included. First, it would have been much better if we had an article on Strickland before she won the Nobel prize for physics, not after. It should give us pause that an article draft submission stating Strickland's basic biography was declined as late as May 2018 as non-notable. While some male Nobel laureates have lacked an article about them until after their prize announcement, and the statistics for the past decade bears this out (neither gender fares better), there is a significant difference: if you look at the early versions of the male Nobel laureate biographies whose articles existed long before receiving the Nobel, a number of them were in worse shape than the Strickland draft that was declined in May.
Second, the wider issues are certainly worth discussing. Two perspectives on it can be found above and below: one from GreenMeansGo acknowledging the gender gap and, rightly, pointing out that anybody can contribute to fix it; and another, a polemic defense of the status quo by Chris Troutman. For my part, however, I want to focus on one specific issue that is more general than the Wikipedia gender gap. Namely, I think a lesson can be drawn from the Strickland case, and it has to do with how we assess the notability of academics.
The May 2018 Strickland draft submission was declined not because Strickland's career at that point didn't indicate she was notable, but because that notability was not attested in independent sources. Strickland was notable: she had been president of The Optical Society, a major scientific society with more than 20,000 professional members; and had also been a fellow of that society—a selective fellowship that singles out individuals "who have served with distinction in the advancement of optics and photonics". But there had apparently been no, or at least no easily accessible, media coverage of those two facts. If that was indeed so, it would be unsurprising—both facts are not usually considered to be of interest to a more general readership. That is why Bradv declined the draft submission, using a template that describes the submission as not showing "significant coverage (not just passing mentions) about the subject in published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject".
If we change one aspect of the guidelines for assessing the notability of academics such that it could have helped in this particular case, we can—much more importantly—facilitate future such assessments without compromising our standards.
The editor who rejected the draft, Bradv, has written a thoughtful essay about this that is worth reading; it is also featured as this issue's opinion piece. As Bradv notes therein, the discussion of his decision that followed the Nobel prize announcement included some editors (along with Bradv) who argued that, on general principles such as notability requiring verifiable evidence and the reliability rationale behind requiring independent sources, declining the draft was the correct decision. Others have argued that the no original research policy, in its section on primary sources, permits the use of reputably published primary sources so long as they do not require interpretation or analysis (which would amount to original research).
When it comes to assessing academic notability (according to the specific criteria defined for that purpose), there is a number of similar situations where highly reliable primary sources could be used. If an academic won a major prize, we will find reliable information about that on the website of the prize-awarding institution. They know best who won their prize and they have no incentive to provide false information; likewise for an academic holding a named chair in a department. If anything, the official staff listing for the department website is as reliable as it gets for that particular bit of information! Other similar cases include who was given a specific fellowship and who is editor of a specific academic journal—the sort of bare facts that are already routinely cited in articles. Nonetheless, a number of editors will hesitate to use that information when deciding whether to decline an article draft or when evaluating notability during a deletion discussion, since it is not from an independent secondary source.
What I propose—or, rather, have proposed (permanent link)—is that we insert into the guidelines for the notability of academics explicit language stating that it is sufficient for those specific sources to be used when deciding on whether or not a person fulfills the notability criteria in question. In other words: having been given a prize, having a distinguished chair, being an editor at a major journal, holding an office at a major scientific society, and having been given a prestigious fellowship should all count toward notability, even if sourced to a non-independent reliable primary source.
I emphatically do not propose that we should accept the word of these primary sources on anything beyond the simple yes-or-no information about a named chair, fellowship, and so on. For instance, of course we should not accept an organization's own word on whether one of its prizes is "prestigious" (which is necessary for the prize to lead to academic notability); however, we should be able to take their word for it when it comes to whether or not their prize has been awarded to a specific person. What is the alternative conclusion? That the university or organization is falsely reporting who their own chairs, fellows, and editors are? To what end?
Some commentators have argued that this addition to the guidelines is redundant—that this is already implied in the current language. I think that the editors mentioned in Bradv's essay, who argued that secondary sources are necessary in this specific case, shows clearly that it is not. Will the addition weaken our criteria for notability? I do not see how it might. The specific criteria (prestigious fellowship, named chair, etc.) touched by this will still be exactly the same; we merely will be allowing additional (reliable!) sources for documenting and fulfilling those criteria. But is this just instruction creep—would this amount to specifying something everyone should already know? I think not. Reviewing Articles for Creation is a thankless task as is; for someone not familiar with what is and isn't reliable in the academic world, the proposed additions will make the job easier.
While inspired by the Strickland case, where the proposed criteria would have made it easier to come to a conclusion that would, not least with hindsight, have been the right thing to do, the proposal will probably affect numerous future cases of academic biographies—biographies that might otherwise be kept out of Wikipedia, not because their subjects would not have been notable academics by our criteria but because it would have been hard to show that they were, according to a not uncommon interpretation of our present standards. I think it will be a good outcome of the Strickland discussion if we can ensure, in this way, that more academics who deserve to be included, are included.
So please, head over to the proposal and tell us what you think! Echoing GreenMeansGo, we are working hard and we are good at what we do. At our best, that includes a realization of where we can do better. I think this is such a case. Let us please find a consensus on this.
Donna Strickland wasn't allowed her article and Wikipedians are to blame!
Regarding the much-discussed "missing" Wikipedia biography of physicist Donna Strickland, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the journalists who laid these charges know nothing about Wikipedia (they keep insisting we have moderators) and are not, in fact, interested in Wikipedia so much as they seek to push a narrative about patriarchy for their naïve readership.
Please allow me to correct this mistaken viewpoint evidenced by imprecise newspaper and magazine language. No one "has an article on Wikipedia." Rather, Wikipedia has articles about people (and other subjects). A Washington Post piece laments that "Donna Strickland didn't have a Wikipedia page." The Independent talks about "a Wikipedia page for Strickland." The Guardian implies Strickland deserved "her own page" while The Observer rhetorically asks "What does a female scientist have to do to get her own Wikipedia page?". The Atlantic claimed that "unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page." The Times of India exclaimed that "Strickland didn't have her own page until after her win." Even the Wikimedia Foundation's Twitter account identified Strickland as a Nobel "laureate who didn't have a @wikipedia article" before her Nobel Prize. And Ed Erhart—who should know better—spoke for the WMF, saying that "[d]espite Strickland's positions and groundbreaking research, she did not have an article about her on the English Wikipedia."
The so-called journalism about this topic often makes this linguistic error, probably because they remain ignorant of ownership. I insist here because correct language leads to correct thought: how Wikipedia decides to write (or not write) an article about associate professor Donna Strickland is a different discussion than why Strickland doesn't get to have an article on Wikipedia. The former premise correctly talks about our institutional inclusion decisions. The latter premise falsely assumes that a woman scientist deserves something that Wikipedia chooses to withhold. Had these so-called news outlets asked the question about why Wikipedia did not prioritize writing about scientists like Strickland, the answer may have been revealed that Wikipedia is not a leading indicator but rather a trailing indicator of notability.
Regardless, some Wikipedians (as well as a few folks at the WMF) fell for that propaganda and are now embarrassed. They express regret that Wikipedia got caught without an article about Strickland prior to the announcement from the Nobel Committee, as if a mistake was made or an injustice was committed. Bradv declined a draft about Strickland months ago at Articles for Creation, and rightly so, but some point to Strickland's fellowship in The Optical Society as proof of the subject is an "elected member of a highly selective and prestigious scholarly society or association" as specified in our notability guidelines for academics; our article about The Optical Society doesn't make clear the group's "highly selective and prestigious" status in the way articles about any of the National Academies might have.
The WMF's Ed Erhart opines that had an expert Wikipedia editor like Quantumavik, a post-doctoral researcher in quantum physics, looked at that draft instead of rank dilettante Bradv, the subjective importance of the society (and by extension, Strickland) would have been recognized. The aforementioned journalists, as well as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself, publicly threw Bradv under the bus rather than defend Bradv's application of notability criteria. He became the scapegoat for Wikipedia's alleged misogynist sins. Honest Wikipedians will admit that Strickland failed the general notability guidelines and "any biography" criteria, and did not clearly satisfy academic notability criteria prior to her Nobel win—and yet, some editors think that what must have been Wikipedia's cruel, premeditated snub of Donna Strickland evinces a problem needing solving.
Spurred by this perceived loss of face, some foolishly call for unneeded inclusionism, perhaps forgetting that we cannot write a decent article without good sources. I doubt we can provide any subject—but especially biographies of living persons—a fair assessment, or the reader a respectable product, if we allow subpar sourcing in pursuit of a silly social justice mandate. Subjects and readers deserve better than a subjective article with slipshod sourcing all to meet a quota. Wikipedia's detractors value quantity over quality, prioritizing their preferred narrative as opposed to responsible authorship. The WMF has stupidly played into this practice, by making the easily quantifiable number of articles in Wikipedia the unit of analysis while forgetting the qualitative results of well-performed article-writing. As an immediatist, thousands of poorly written Stub- and Start-class articles have no value for me, unless all you want is a fig-leaf stub article to hide behind lest some media outlet accuse us.
Rather than push back against thoughtless newspapers and educate the public with this opportunity, the WMF unwisely called upon readers to "do something about it", as if activist editors would help the situation. The WMF, like WikiProject Women in Red, embraces this tribalist right-great-wrongs mentality by pursuing ill-thought slacktivism. While perhaps some of the articles created through populist efforts might meet our notability guidelines, to encourage more bias to counter a perception of systemic bias is reprehensible. Any article we write about a living person has to be based upon multiple, independent, reliable sources. To do otherwise would risk writing either hagiography or libel.
Those of us who are serious about our contributions should resist the shrill voices of ignorant commentators looking for clickbait. An article on Wikipedia is not the final determiner of fact: we do not hand out recognition as if we, alone, decide which subjects are worth attention. I not only caution against leaving the status quo, but also understand that Wikipedians—Bradv first among them—are owed an apology.