- We invited the Op-Ed presented here from Jess Wade (Jesswade88), a working physicist, award-winning "ambassador for STEM" and one of Nature's 10 people who mattered in 2018. You can read more about the incident described below at this month's In the media report. – Ed.
The weekend after Thanksgiving (November 30, 2019) I headed over to my Wikipedia Watchlist, excited to check out my unread notifications. I've been editing Wikipedia for almost two years, creating articles everyday about women scientists and engineers. Usually my notifications are to alert me about the latest activity over on WikiProject Women in Red, or to let me know a page has been nominated for Did You Know, or to make suggestions about people who need biographies. But this time the notification was different – an anonymous editor, using only their IP address, had tagged 50 of my recent articles as not meeting Wikipedia's notability guidelines. The user had, at a rate exceeding 1 biography per minute, deemed this group of professors, award-winning journalists, best-selling authors and well-respected policy makers as not notable.
The notability criteria for academics to be worthy of a Wikipedia page are pretty self-explanatory – and if you've written a biography before, they won't be new to you. Researchers who have had a big impact on their academic discipline, hold a prestigious academic award, are an elected Fellow of a prestigious learned society, hold a named chair, serve as Editor-In-Chief of an important journal or have contributed to the world in their academic capacity are all deemed worthy of a spot on the site. Of course; thanks to academia's own built-in bias (white Western men are more likely to be interviewed and quoted by the press, more frequently cited in academic literature and more often awarded important fellowships or prizes), these notability criteria contribute to Wikipedia's gender gap. But even when women fulfil them, it's hard to substantiate with independent reliable sources – often the only place that writes about them is their employer. When Professor Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize she didn't have a Wikipedia page – not because she hadn't been notable before winning, but because the only place that wrote about her being President of the Optical Society of America was the Optical Society of America, and that was deemed as not an impartial enough reference to prove she had held this position.
I made the mistake of tweeting a screenshot of the tagged pages, and for a week or so, Twitter was a frenzy of animated discussion, spurred by Wikipedia's apparent sexism. Whilst several misinterpreted the problem (after all, we all know that Wikipedia content is created and deleted by a network of volunteers, and that other than training and supporting new editors, the Wikimedia Foundation are not involved), plenty replied to say this was why they had given up. To the untrained editor, interactions like the ones I found in my notifications the weekend after Thanksgiving can sting. To beginners from underrepresented groups, the encyclopaedia can feel less like a team effort and more like an elitist members club, where those with experience throw their weight around – their opinions and power dictating what stays online and what doesn't.
We should all be doing more to tackle Wikipedia's gender and knowledge gaps. We should all be more active in editing, training and supporting new editors. We should all be encouraging journalists to cover more stories from and about those from minority groups, helping awarding bodies to recognise the outstanding work of scientists and engineers who are traditionally underrepresented and unearthing the stories of those who are all too often overlooked. We should all make more effort to edit and improve articles rather than deem them not notable. Wikipedia's a gift to the world – the whole world – and the information on here should reflect the diverse communities who benefit from it.