Dr. Donna Strickland is brilliant, accomplished, and inspiringshe is the first woman Nobel Physics laureate in 55 years. To use Wikipedia parlance, Dr. Strickland is very clearly notable. Except that, somehow, she wasnt.
Despite her groundbreaking research, Dr. Strickland did not have an article about her on English Wikipedia until shortly after she was announced as one of the newest Nobel laureates last week. To make matters worse, someone had drafted an article for her in March of this year, only to have it declined. The reason? Not enough citations to independent secondary sources that would establish her notability.
Dr. Strickland is a Nobel laureatea giant in her fieldso why was she missing from the worlds largest encyclopedia? Dr. Penny Richards, a prolific author of biographies about women on Wikipedia, sums up the conundrum: if Dr. Strickland’s “achievements were never reported” where Wikipedia editors could find them, they could not use them as sources. And if there are no sources to use as references, how could a group of generalist, volunteer Wikipedia editors effectively do justice to her work?
Before Wikipedia points fingers that might rightly point back at us, let me acknowledge that Wikipedias shortcomings are absolutely real. We have dozens of articles about battleships and could use more on poetry. Weve got comprehensive coverage on college football but we’re less good on African athletes. Our standards for notability lean heavily on established institutions with their own structural biases. Our contributors are majority Western, and mostly male. We have gatekeepers who apply their own judgment, with their own prejudices, whatever those may be.
Fortunately, Wikipedia still mostly works. Many in our editing community are dedicated to filling coverage gaps, welcoming more diverse contributors, and creatively rethinking sourcing criteria. Theres still a long way to go, but theyve made real progress: in 2014, Wikipedia editors realized that only around 15% of the biographies on English Wikipedia were of women. As the result of a concentrated effort,that number is now 17.82%. That may not sound like much, but it represents 86,182 new articles: 72 new articles a day, every single day, for the past three and a half years.
A2015 study by Claudia Wagner, et al, found that, on English Wikipedia, the word “divorced” appears 4.4 times more frequently in a biography of a woman than of a man. For German and Russian Wikipedia that multiplier increases to 4.7 and 4.8 times, respectively. Why does divorce matter in the lives of women but not men? Prejudice can be very hard to see in ourselves.
The childrens rights activist Marian Wright Edelman famously observed that, you cant be what you cant see. Today, what you see on Wikipedia has a significant effect on how women are represented in the world. Wikipedia is often the first link in many web searches, widely used by hundreds of millions of people, and largely trusted. So if a Wikipedia article about famous physicists only describes the achievements of male physicists, it would be hard to blame a reader for thinking that perhaps women havent contributed much to the field. What starts out as an error of omission can end up erasing the contributions of half the world.
Technology can help by identifying problematic patterns. On Wikipedia, articles about health are treated with close special attention by our medical editor community. Yet for years a number of articles on critical womens health issues, such as breastfeeding, languished under a low importance categorization, meaning that the quality and completeness of those articles was not considered a priority. It was an intelligent algorithm that identified this gendered miscategorization, affording Wikipedia editors the chance to improve the articles quality.
Its not just that certain articles are missing or incomplete. Wikipedia is increasingly a major source for training the powerful artificial intelligence models that underlie many common technologies. This training occurs when computers ingest large datasets, draw inferences from patterns in the data, and generate predictions. While the technologies may be sophisticated, its easy to understand how bad data is almost certain to generate biased outcomes. In programming, this phenomenon goes by the abbreviation GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.
People may intuitively understand that Wikipedia is a living, changing work in progress, but computers by contrast simply process the data theyre given. If women account for only 17.82% of the data available, we may find ourselves with software that believes women are only 17.82% of what matters in the world.
This makes it even more urgent that Wikipedia reflects a broader diversity of people. Yes, women, but especially women of color. Yes, women, but especially those with disabilities. Yes, women, and also LGBTQIA+ people and their stories. Yes women, and also indigenous communities and their histories. Yes, women, and also the world.
At the Wikimedia Foundation, we are dedicated to a belief that every single human should be able to share freely in the sum of all knowledge. We believe in knowledge equity, the idea that everyone has the right to representation and participation in what we know about the world. We do not have to limit the encyclopedia to what fits on a shelf, because the internet has space for all of our knowledge.
But we can’t do this alone. It is true that Wikipedia has a problem if Dr. Donna Strickland, an accomplished and award-winning physicist, can only be the subject of a Wikipedia article once she has received the highest recognition in her field. But its not just Wikipedias problem. It is a global problem with how we recognize, elevate, and celebrate womens accomplishments and contributions to scholarship and our societies at large.
Wikipedia is built on the shoulders of giants. Were generalists who learn from the expertise of specialists, and summarize it for the world to share. If journalists, editors, researchers, curators, academics, grantmakers, and prize-awarding committees dont apply their expertise to identifying, recognizing, and elevating more diverse talent, then our editors have no shoulders upon which to stand. Its time for these other knowledge-generating institutions to join us in the pursuit of knowledge equity. Wikipedia alone cant change how society values women, but together we can change how they are seen.
Katherine Maher, Executive Director Wikimedia Foundation