Marie Curie is one of the most famous women in science. But her first page on Wikipedia was shared with her husband — until someone pointed out that, perhaps, her scientific contributions were notable enough to warrant her own biography.
That’s the beauty of Wikipedia. It is the fifth most popular website in the world and notches up more than 32 million views a day. A community of volunteer editors collaboratively edit, update and add content to democratize access to a common and constantly updating collection of knowledge. But as with any democracy, results are determined by those who choose to participate. Who edits Wikipedia — and the biases they carry with them — matters.
Studies have found that somewhere between 84% and 91% of Wikipedia editors are male. While some might argue that an editor’s gender shouldn’t affect their ability to participate, the fact remains that only 17.7% of Wikipedia biographies written in English are about women. Women fare the worst in articles written in Tajik, the official language of Tajikistan, making up only 1% of biographies.
What we choose to edit is informed by what we know — not only in terms of our scientific expertise, but also from our own lived experiences. For women and people in other under-represented groups in science, that knowledge includes an intimate understanding of how our contributions are downplayed or outright erased from the history of science. The Wikipedia community should reflect the populations it serves — in race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The US National Science Foundation has invested money to understand and bridge the gender gap on Wikipedia, and we are hopeful that more efforts to better recognize the contributions of all other under-represented groups will follow.
In 2012, Emily Temple-Wood, an undergraduate student at Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, began to write biographies of women in science onto Wikipedia. At the time, she was pushing back against systematic biases against women in the sciences, writing biographies after her biology classes despite harassing e-mails from online trolls. She founded the WikiProject Women Scientists and shared the 2016 Wikipedian of the Year Award with Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, longtime Wikipedia editor and co-founder of the WikiProject Women in Red. Women in Red serves to turn the dead-end red links about women on Wikipedia into clickable blue ones, and since 2014 has increased the proportion of biographies on women from 15% to 17.7% of the total.
WikiProjects are organizations of groups of contributors who work together to improve Wikipedia. They provide a sense of community when you’re editing alone, ways of tracking page creation and opportunities for improving existing pages. On their Talk pages, you’ll find ideas for whose pages to edit, invitations to virtual ‘edit-a-thons’ and research guides. These projects have a long-lasting impact on the quantity and quality of pages made.
Before the WikiProject Women Scientists, the quality of an average Wikipedia biography about a woman was generally rated significantly worse than most other pages on the encyclopaedia. Now, biographies of women are generally rated more highly than other pages on the site. There are several other WikiProjects we are following, including the WikiProjects LGBT studies and Under-representation of science and women in Africa.
So often, we hear that girls in science need more role models and inspiration. We’re asked, ‘Where are the women in science?’, as if we’re not already here, working in the lab or the field. So we respectfully disagree. There are plenty of role models if you do the work to find them. And, despite their best intentions, many campaigns to highlight women scientists can be reductionist, cynical and boring — celebrating a woman’s gender rather than her achievements. Discovering a fantastic woman scientist as you were reading up on a new experimental technique or research area on Wikipedia is much more compelling than finding her separated from her expertise in a page of ‘the Top 50 women you should know.’
Wikipedia allows us to write and edit history as it’s happening, highlighting the work of women and people in under-represented minority groups in the moment, rather than looking back at a dated textbook decades in the future. A Wikipedia biography can give a scientist credibility: the encyclopaedia is indexed so regularly by Google that it appears at the top of the page and is regularly used by journalists looking for sources. With a Wikipedia biography, scientists can become a lot more human than they are on a university website — complete with their public engagement, personal stories and out-of-office-hours experiences.
Editing Wikipedia is easy, free and rewarding. It’s a thing to do with friends or your community, and might well fill out your CV. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection, a Wikipedia account and a bunch of neutral, reliable sources, along with a couple of hours to spare. Pick a biography you like from elsewhere in Wikipedia and copy the structure, using sections to separate education, research and awards. It’s important to check that the person you’re writing about meets the Wikipedia notability criteria for academics and that writing their biography isn’t a conflict of interest (so avoid writing bios for your family, friends or supervisors). Be bold, but not reckless. If you’re nervous, reach out to other editors in the community.
We don’t have to wait for a blockbuster movie or work of non-fiction to tell us about the next Marie Curie. With Wikipedia, we can tell these stories ourselves.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.