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An Effort to Include More Women: Wikipedia's Response to the Strickland Incident

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Photo courtesy Wikimedia / bit.ly/2RkDyAF
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When the names of the 2018 Nobel Laureates in physics were announced earlier this month there was immediate excitement to see a woman's name on the list. Donna Strickland became the third woman ever to win a Nobel in physics and the first in more than 50 years. It seemed like progress for women in science.

But almost immediately that story became eclipsed by another because as people started searching for information about Donna Strickland, it became apparent that she didn't have a Wikipedia page. In fact, a request to start one had been denied earlier this year.

The Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's parent organization, says it is committed to a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

So, what does this incident say about the success of that endeavor and what is Wikipedia doing to broaden its horizons?

To start, it's important to note that Wikipedia is quite expansive. It's in about 300 languages and there are about forty-eight million articles on the website. In English alone, there are about five-and-a-half-million articles. But it’s not as comprehensive as Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, would like it to be.

“While we have a tremendous amount of coverage about many, many things in the world, there's also a huge amount that's missing, and I think that that actually speaks not just to Wikipedia, but to sort of shared human knowledge and what we've prioritized over the years,” Maher said.  

Donna Strickland has a Wikipedia page now, but being denied one, despite being an important figure in science, is something Wikimedia is taking seriously. According to Maher, there were a combination of factors that lead to her being declined a page in the first place.

“What we found in talking to that editor who declined the page, was he wasn't an expert in her field and he took a quick look. He was going through a backlog of about 4,000 articles and needed review and he didn't see the citations that met the minimum criteria we have for academic inclusion,” Maher said.

The editor who made that choice wrote an essay about his decision. And Maher noted that “this is one we got wrong.”

Maher and the Wikimedia Foundation took this as an opportunity to grow and learn.

“This is an instance in which our systemic internal biases are reflected to the broader public. It's a moment of awareness for us to talk about how Wikipedia works and how we need to improve. It's a moment for us to call on editors and people to contribute,” Maher said.

And with 72 new articles about women being written every day, according to Maher, they’re starting starting to make a dent. 

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Web post produced by Liz Lerner. 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.