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). 


  1. At one of the schools where I teach, a colleague assigned this work as an undergraduate capstone project: to create a full, footnoted Wikipedia entry for a French lesbian author who had only figured as a stub before. I rather like the idea as a practical introduction to scholarly rigor and public scholarship.

  2. Anne, I agree! I also have colleagues who've used Wikipedia in teaching and asked students to research a little-known historical figure and write their biography for Wikipedia. It's such a great idea for a learning project.

  3. I wonder how much the "notability" guidelines affect who ends up with a Wiki entry. I don't know much about this, but I think an author needs to have had a certain level of contemporary attention paid to them and, if further in the past, some level of continued attention paid to them. So, if women authors got less coverage at the time they were writing, and have subsequently been received less academic attention, that would probably mean they're not so likely to be deemed "notable."

    Mind you, I also have no idea how strictly Wikipedia enforces this kind of guideline.

  4. Laura, you make a fair point about who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page, and what exactly that level of fame means. I do know that Wikipedia want to add English pages from other encyclopedias or biographical guides that are missing, including women authors (cf. Hence the 'Women in Red' project (the names in red on that page are those without a Wikipedia page).

  5. Hmm. So if romance authors are less likely to appear in encyclopedias/biographical guides, they'd be less likely to be deemed notable. However, there are actually some books like that about more modern authors (e.g. Twentieth Century Romance and Gothic Writers) so maybe it wouldn't be so much of a problem as I was thinking.

  6. I think the low number of biographies of women is an issue (notwithstanding the general absence of notable women from history) but I also think Wikipedia is the kind of place where we can write women back into history (it's certainly easier to write a Wikipedia page than get something published in a printed book). Using Wikipedia when teaching women authors or women's history (as Anne said) is a great way to teach representation and its problems and to also create something that will help solve the problem at the same time!

  7. I know it's been an exceedingly hard thing, even among scholars of women's literature, to attempt document historical references of woman author's work simply because the historical biases against their publication. Some have even told me the pool is too small because, outside of women we know published pseudo-anonmously, many of those authors are lost to history. Definitely a challenge to scholarship, moreso on Wikipedia.

    1. You're absolutely right, Andy - this is exactly what I've discovered during this research project. While Annie Swan was (according to others at the time) the most successful Scottish women author, because she wrote romance (and probably because she was a woman) she's been largely erased from Scottish literary history (you won't find her in any Scottish literature anthologies). This is something I've talked and blogged about before in terms of romance scholarship, but the erasing of women of importance from history is such a big problem. Part of it is about uncovering women from the past who have been lost, and part of it is preserving the women we have now, before they too are lost.

  8. What a great discussion! In my own experience, the notability standard is something you have to work at. I usually spend quite a bit of time thinking about what those first two sentences at the top of the biography will be - what's the pitch for notability essentially?

    Couldn't agree more with Wikipedia being a way to write women back into history. I find myself in galleries, stately homes, libraries etc snapping pictures of portraits and noting names more and more often!

    1. Hi Anne-Marie,

      That's a good exercise that could be applied to lots of academic writing - the opening pitch for relevance and impact. I bet that those first few lines are also the most read on the whole page, so they need to get the key information across while also conveying the importance...