Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons: a form of science advocacy

This is a guest blog post from Farah Qaiser, who is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. As vocal #WomenInSTEM advocates started creating and sharing Wikipedia pages, Farah decided to try out editing Wikipedia too. Read on to find out more about the ongoing global quest to improve the coverage of female and minority scientists on Wikipedia, and how you too can take part in this form of science advocacy at an Edit-A-Thon or from the comfort of your own home.

How often do you turn to Wikipedia for information?

A lot probably. I do too. Wikipedia is my go-to source when I need a quick introduction to a new concept, or recap of a past event.

It’s not just you and me though. Today, Wikipedia is the fifth most popular website in the world, racking up more than 32 million views a day. It was first launched on 15th January 2001, and impressively, the encyclopedia now has more than 40 million articles in around 300 different languages. This is all possible due to Wikipedia’s global community of volunteer editors, whose contributions make information accessible.

Wikipedia’s fifth pillar is to be bold – first-time editors should keep in mind that no one edit will break the online encyclopedia. Credit: Alexander Moravek.

While anyone (with an internet connection, reliable sources and some time to spare) can edit Wikipedia, the volunteer community isn’t the diverse pool of editors you’d hope it to be.

The Wikipedia Gender Gap Revisited study found that as of 2008, around 84% of English Wikipedia editors were male, while a Wikipedia Editor Survey (2011) found that globally, male editors formed 91% of the survey respondents. These numbers remain consistent to today, where most recently, a 2018 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 90% of editors were male. As for nationality, most editors are present in the U.S. (20%), followed by Germany (12%) and Russia (7%), with India closing out the top ten countries with a mere 3%.

I could rattle off more statistics, but I reckon you get the idea. From Wikipedia’s own reported demographics, it’s clear there’s a significant lack of diversity amongst its community of volunteer editors – and this can be seen reflected in the encylopedia’s gender and racial bias, which has been reported by academics, media and Wikipedia alike. In fact, today, only 17.67% of English Wikipedia’s biographies are about women.

Jess Wade and Maryam Zaringhalam summarize the problem best in their 2018 Nature Career Column piece, stating that “Who edits Wikipedia — and the biases they carry with them — matters.” In fact, it was these two vocal #WomenInSTEM advocates who started creating new Wikipedia pages and sharing them via social media, which prompted me to ask: how hard is it to edit Wikipedia – and can I also address the encyclopedia’s limited coverage of women scientists from the comfort of my own home?

I was curious, so I decided to take a deep dive.

A few hours later, I had zipped through a Wikipedia tutorial, created an account, and through the user-friendly Visual Editor interface, I edited a few pages for spelling and grammar. It was fun, easy and straightforward. I was hooked. I turned to copy-editing different types of pages, such as scientific organizations and academic journals, and then moved on to expanding pages on female scientists.

Three days later, my account was officially off ‘training wheels,’ so I decided to create a new page. I had recently read an obituary on Dr. Miriam Rossi (deceased as of 11 July 2018) and had been dismayed to see that she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. I decided to tackle the problem by creating my first page - which was approved a month later!

Wikipedia editing soon became a simple task that I could do in the evenings with Netflix open in the background. I enjoyed making edits, expanding pages, and whenever I had more time, I could sit down and create a new page. (I even created a Wikipedia page for Evidence for Democracy!)

Soon, I had an idea. What if there was a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon in Toronto, where participants could together address the limited coverage of women and minority scientists on Wikipedia? With more people, we could make a greater difference.

And so I worked alongside my fellow Toronto Science Policy Network executives to host #TSPNWikiEdit18 on Saturday 23rd September 2018. We were fortunate enough to find partners willing to support our initiative, which included the University of Toronto Libraries, and student groups, such as the Women in Chemistry Toronto and the Green Chemistry Initiative. Over 30 event attendees came out to update and create pages related to scientific research, science policy and/or science communication, and collectively added 8.8K words to Wikipedia, which have now been viewed over 62.8K times. (Wow!)

#TSPNWikiEdit18 Edit-A-Thon in session. Credit: Alexander Moravek.

However, #TSPNWikiEdit18 isn’t alone when it comes to Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons in Canada.

On 10th October 2018, Science & Policy Exchange, Broad Science and 500 Women Scientists Montreal collaborated to host an Wikithon, in Montreal, as part of a global effort to increase the representation of women scientists on Ada Lovelace Day.

Science & Policy Exchange’s co-president Mary-Rose Bradley-Gill shares that this Edit-A-Thon was inspired by Jess Wade, and the incredible number of Wikipedia articles she has created and/or edited for women scientists. “[The Edit-A-Thon organizers] all connected about it on Twitter and decided we wanted to help and empower other women to do the same,” says Bradley-Gill, who is also a PhD candidate at McGill University.

Similarly, Dr. Dawn Bazely (an ecology and evolutionary professor at York University) has worked alongside others (including librarian John Dupuis) to help host the annual Ada Lovelace Day Women in Science Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at York University. In fact, Bazely first came across the Ada Lovelace Day global Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons in 2013; during a time period where she was seeking concrete steps to address systemic, ongoing misogyny faced by women in STEM fields.

As described in a recent Twitter thread, Bazely shares that “learning Wikipedia editing was a slog, even [though] I had learned Fortran and sp/k with punch cards [and] command driven Systat & SAS. Wikipedia mark-up language seemed a grab bag of every syntax and language I'd ever seen. How could I ever run an Edit-A-Thon?”

But step by step, Bazely incorporated Wikipedia editing as one of the many science communication assignments to complete in her undergraduate courses. She found that students liked editing Wikipedia the least. “They didn't mind the research, but in my courses, they didn't want to add in edits directly both because of the mark-up language not being particularly accessible (though this has improved) and [because] they didn't like seeing their edits reversed. [This] was back in January 2014,” says Bazely.

As she learned more about the pedagogical side of Wikipedia editing, Bazely has adopted a more hands-on mentorship approach to new Wikipedia editors. Since then, Bazely has helped organize annual Ada Lovelace Day Edit-A-Thons, and even hosted one during her sabbatical at Visva Bharati University in India. She remains vocal about this issue, and recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post in response to Nobel prize winner Dr. Donna Strickland not having a Wikipedia page beforehand, stating that “Wikipedia offers us the opportunity to question our preconceived notions of who is worth knowing about.”

#TSPNWikiEdit18 Edit-A-Thon participants hard at work. Credit: Alexander Moravek.

From protests and marches to open letters, it’s clear that science advocacy (especially when it comes to addressing equity, diversity and inclusion) comes in all forms. I strongly believe that we can add another form of science advocacy to the list: Wikipedia editing and Edit-A-Thons, through which we can ensure that the voices and work of female and minority scientists are also being recognized on Wikipedia.

Bradley-Gill echoes these sentiments, stating that “I think [that Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons] can be an effective form of science advocacy. They encourage scientists to be engaged - that they can have a role in who gets visibility as scientists on Wikipedia.” She adds that Broad Science, 500 Women Scientists Montreal and Science & Policy Exchange hope to host Edit-A-Thons on a regular basis to continue this work.

Today, I still edit Wikipedia when I have time, and expand or create pages for scientists, with a personal focus on women and visible minorities. My recent pages include Dr. Eugenia Duodu, Dr. Lisa Robinson and Dr. Khaled Almilaji. With #TSPNWikiEdit18’s success in mind, I’m also excited to work with a few other enthusiasts (including the University of Toronto’s first Wikipedian-In-Residence: Alex Jung) to bring another Edit-A-Thon to Toronto, to be hosted in time for the 2019 International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Do you also want to try out Wikipedia editing, but aren’t sure where to start? Your first step can be to look for an Edit-A-Thon in your area, as these events teach editing basics and help beginners familiarize themselves with Wikipedia policies. Can’t find a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon close to you? That’s alright. You can still learn how to edit Wikipedia using this short tutorial, and simply keep in mind that your edits do not have to be perfect as Wikipedia is a work in progress.

As scientists, editing Wikipedia is our opportunity to make knowledge accessible and to highlight the voices and work of scientists - especially those who are traditionally under-represented - from the comfort of our own homes. No one mistake will break the online encyclopedia, so be bold, and join the ongoing global quest to improve the coverage of female and minority scientists on Wikipedia.

Farah is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, where her research involves whole-genome sequencing of patients with neurological disorders. When not in the lab, Farah dabbles in various science communication, policy and outreach initiatives. Of note, she is one of the founders of the Toronto Science Policy Network.

Disclaimers: Farah created the Wikipedia page for Evidence For Democracy (E4D), and expanded E4D co-founder Katie Gibbs’ page prior to writing this post. Additionally, this post quotes Dr. Dawn R. Bazely, who has previously supported E4D through donations.

Emma Bugg

Communications and Engagement Coordinator

Emma is passionate about social and environmental justice and has worked on climate change issues for a variety of non-profit organizations. She has worked to learn leadership and organizing skills through volunteer work, as well as through social justice leadership training programs including IMPACT!