By: Shelby Lawson
Women have made significant contributions in STEM, and have become increasingly prevalent in the STEM community. However, their online visibility, particularly regarding their accomplishments and contributions to science, remains disproportionately low due to factors such as inherent bias. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia, and the 5th most visited website in the world. In recent years it has emerged as a powerhouse of trusted information, largely due to the collaborative nature behind article creation and management on the platform. However, less than 20% of Wikipedia’s pages feature women.
To address this disparity, Wikipedia edit-a-thon events have gained traction in universities across the world. These events provide scheduled times for groups to come together and create or edit Wikipedia pages for women and other underrepresented groups. This fall, the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology hosted the first event in a series of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, with the inaugural event taking place last week. This initiative is spearheaded by the IGB DEI Task Force, a group dedicated to creating new programs and initiatives meant to increase dialogues and create change internally towards a more inclusive environment.
Julia Pollack, former Co-chair of the DEITF, says the idea came about during a discussion with fellow DEITF members Ananya Sen, Claudia Lutz, and Erin Louer. The group was inspired by the story of Jess Wade, a British physicist at Imperial College in London, who has written more than 1800 Wikipedia pages for female and minority scientists underrepresented on the platform. Wanting to build upon Wade’s efforts, the group decided to host their own edit-a-thon series at the IGB.
“Learning about Jess’ work got us so pumped, seeing how she is directly impacting the representation of women online through her creation of Wikipedia pages,” Pollack recalled. “When Ananya reached out to her, Jess was so inspiring and kind, and took the time to meet with us, answer our questions, and really help direct our vision for this edit-a-thon.”
The first event in the series featured a seminar by guest speaker Mackenzie Lemieux, a fourth-year medical student at the Washington University School of Medicine. Lemieux, who has authored over 100 Wikipedia biographies of women in STEM, has led numerous workshops across the country on how to effectively write and edit women’s pages on Wikipedia. She also conducts research exploring gender and racial bias on the platform.
“Wikipedia is a really unique and awesome website that’s volunteer driven, and provides knowledge for free to anyone with access to the internet,” said Lemieux. “Teaching people how to create and edit for Wikipedia removes the black box, and puts the opportunity to contribute to our worldwide database of knowledge into people’s hands.”
Lemieux discussed the current issues of bias not only on Wikipedia but in STEM in general. Gender biases manifest at a remarkably young age. Studies have shown that when children are asked to draw a scientist, they typically draw an older, white male figure. However, when children are exposed to a counter-stereotypic environment, such as a diverse lab of researchers from various backgrounds, their drawings became more representative. This highlights the importance of representation, which extends to online platforms.
“There are so many women that are incredible scientists, and their contributions are very important to STEM history, yet their accomplishments can easily be lost due to bias,” said Lemieux. “Wikipedia has the power to improve women's visibility in STEM, and rewrite history so that its accurate about women's contributions.”
During her seminar, Lemieux delved into the reasons behind why the number of women’s pages on Wikipedia is lacking. First, Wikipedia moderators, who decide which articles to retain or delete, are predominantly white, male, and from North America and Europe, leading to inherent bias in determining notability. Second, notability criteria on Wikipedia are highly subjective, with the main rule being the need for a substantial number of independent online sources to confirm a person's contributions. The work of women and people of color is less likely to be featured online, compounding the issue, according to Lemieux.
Efforts by groups like Women in Red, who advocate for women's pages, and edit-a-thon events, which mobilize people to create pages for deserving women, have contributed to increasing the number of pages dedicated to women on Wikipedia. The DEITF hopes the IGB Wikipedia edit-a-thon event series will contribute to the improvement of women’s visibility online.
“The more you write, the more you see the tangible impact of your pages ─ the number of views, the amount of people building upon and improving your pages,” said Lemieux. “It’s so inspiring because you think about how that page didn’t exist before you wrote it, and now people are reading and referencing it every day.”
The edit-a-thon series will span multiple sessions in the coming months, providing participants with ample opportunities to collaborate and create new pages. Librarians from the ACES FUNK library will be on hand to assist newcomers in creating Wikipedia pages, and provide suggestions for women to write about.
“There will be people at these events to assist with the process, and if you can’t make it to the edit-a-thon, there’s a lot of online tools to teach people how to edit for Wikipedia,” explained Lemieux. “The first step is just making an account. I know it can be intimidating to write a page that could be seen by everyone worldwide, but that visibility is what makes writing these pages so important.”
The next guest speaker in the series will be Jamie Flood, a master's student in Library and Information Science. Register for the remaining Wikipedia edit-a-thon events at go.igb.illinois.edu/Wikipedia.
By: Shelby Lawson
Photos By: Mirhee Lee