Sunday, April 30, 2017

Wikipedia, research and representation

Editathon in Edinburgh (photo: Eugenia Twomey)
Admit it, academics out there - you've used Wikipedia. Maybe today, almost certainly this week, you've used "the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet" (and yes, that is from the Wikipedia page on Wikipedia) to check a detail on something you're teaching, researching, or talking about with people in the pub.

And that's totally fine. I love Wikipedia. I use it all the time. I even encourage my students to use it. And even though we probably tell them to find a more 'reliable' or 'peer-reviewed' source to cite in their essays, really, what could be more reliable than Wikipedia, whose (as noted on the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia) "level of accuracy approached Encyclopædia Britannica's".

But that same article also notes that a common criticism of Wikipedia is its systemic bias, that it is not always entirely truthful and that it is vulnerable to manipulation. This can be summed up by a simple question: who writes Wikipedia? Wikipedia conducted a survey in 2013 and found that only 13% of its editors were women. It is this side of Wikipedia that causes many people to remain skeptical about its usefulness, particularly to researchers.

What is more problematic are issues of representation. For a start, Wikipedia is dominated by English content; while English content accounts for only 12% of all of Wikipedia, the number of users, edits, and total pages (including categories, templates, and images) is by far the highest (check out the stats for yourself). So if you're someone who doesn't speak English, there's a lot of Wikipedia that won't be accessible to you. Equally, the dominance of English language content on Wikipedia (and on the internet more widely) is likely to also mean that the culture and media of non-English speaking places is less widely represented. Even within English pages on Wikipedia, there are huge gaps in representation when it comes to women. This is something I'd always been aware of but it really hit home for me when I was working on a recent research project on early twentieth-century Scottish women authors.

My plan was to explore fiction holdings in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh of Scottish women who wrote romantic fiction set in Scotland between 1908 and 1940. As is fairly common at the start of a new research project, I wanted to find out as much about the different authors as I could. So, as many others I'm sure do, I ended up on Wikipedia. But, after a point, Wikipedia couldn't help me, because some of the authors I was looking for were simply not there. For example, Robina Forrester Hardy (1835-1891), who is listed as a Scottish poet on Wikisource, does not have a Wikipedia page. In fact as of today, only 16.93% of Wikipedia biographies in English were of women (data from Women in Red).

This lack of representation of women (and many others who are not white, Western, men) on Wikipedia is a real problem. Our students have grown up with Wikipedia and see it (as do I) as a quick and reliable source of basic information. But that basic information is not as comprehensive as it might claim to be if so much of what makes up and has made up the world is excluded.

This concern is what has led to a string of 'editathons' across the world. These often locally-organised events are supported by Wikipedia and seek to fill in gaps in Wikipedia's provision. Many groups have made use of the model of editathons to add pages of women in art (National Museum of Women in the Arts), or just women in general via WikiProjects like Women in Red). My own institution, the University of Edinburgh, has run editathons to raise the profile of women in science and Scottish history.

These events, often run by Wikipedians in Residence (people who work in libraries, universities and other organisations to build a relationship between the organisations and create pages relating to that institution's mission or aims) and teach people how to create and edit Wikipedia pages before helping them write new content on notable women, places, histories or events. There's a helpful guide to running editathons on Wikipedia (where else)?).

So, I've decided, as part of this current project, to add what information I can to the existing pages for the women authors whose works I've been looking at. This includes Annie Shepherd Swan, who wrote over 200 novels, was a founding member of the SNP and who was one of the first women to stand for election in 1918 (she didn't win). This is information that would have been more difficult to find out if it wasn't on Wikipedia. Indeed, Annie Swan's page was only created in 2010 as part of a project to add missing pages. Compare this to S. R. Crockett's page - a contemporary of Swan's who wrote similar novels but who enjoyed less commercial success, his Wikipedia page was created in 2004.

It's true that Wikipedia is not the only place women are absent; their place in the English literature canon is far from established (something that is hopefully changing). But adding content to Wikipedia on these women is something high impact and low effort that I can do to make a difference now. In fact, it's probably something we should all do; after all, we all use it...right?


The photo used is from the University of Edinburgh History of Medicine Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Innovative Learning Week in February 2016. The photo was taken by Eugenia Twomey and is used here under a CC-BY-SA license).