Women scientists being whitewashed from Wikipedia – Ewan McAndrew, Siobhan O’Connor, Dr Sara Thomas and Dr Alice White

Wikipedia celebrated its 18th birthday on 15 January this year and continues to build the largest open knowledge resource in human ­history.

Wikipedia celebrated its 18th birthday on 15 January this year and continues to build the largest open knowledge resource in human ­history.

This free, online, multilingual encyclopedia is one of the most popular sources of information worldwide. Its English language version receives more than 500 million views a month, from 1.4 billion unique devices. In addition, technology companies such as Google, ­Amazon and Facebook use Wikipedia as a source of information for services they ­provide and so topics on Wikipedia become better known amongst the public.

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However, Wikipedia has significant gaps in the topics it covers, partly due to the lack of diversity of its community of editors who create and maintain its pages. Most are white men which has led to a low percentage of biographies about women on the online platform, currently less than 18 per cent. This information gap on Wikipedia silences women’s contribution to science as they become less visible in public life, which can lead to more women being lost to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

A recent example of this ingrained gender bias was highlighted when Dr Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018, one of only three women ever to do so. Her ­Wikipedia page was previously rejected by moderators who felt her contribution to physics did not ­warrant a biography on the online platform. Another example is the History of Chemistry entry on ­Wikipedia which features more than 200 men but only mentions four women and is missing notable female chemists such as Nobel Prize winning ­biochemist Gerty Cori.

The Wikipedia community has many initiatives to address this ­systemic gender bias. Women in Red is one global project that aims to turn dormant red links for women’s ­articles that do not yet exist on the platform into clickable blue ones which do.

This directs readers to works by women on Wikipedia. Editing events, known as ‘edit-a-thons’, teach people how to create and update Wikipedia pages and have been running ­internationally for a number of years. The University of Edinburgh has been hosting Women in STEM Wikipedia edit-a-thons for the last four years and the Wellcome Library in London has run women in science edit-a-thons to build new biographies of prominent female chemists, engineers and nurses.

Tackling this gender bias online requires collective responsibility to bring about positive change. How to do this can take numerous forms. Anyone can commit time and ­energy to become a dedicated Wikimedian and regularly create female ­scientific biographies and other content ­related to women in science. Those who do, such as members of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland, tend to benefit from a sense of reciprocity and altruism which results from the direct impact that Wikipedia has worldwide.

Siobhán, edit-a-thon participant and Young Academy of Scotland member, said: “Creating my first biography was a little daunting but within two hours I had a basic ­outline written about a Scottish female scientist. Since then her page is the top hit that comes back in Google if you search for her so the immediate impact’s right there! And her page has already been viewed a few hundred times.”

Organisations could provide ­training for staff at all levels via Wikipedia edit-a-thons to build capacity for an inclusive, global, online community. Investing in a Wikimedian, an in-house expert dedicated to educating and supporting an organisation to contribute to Wikipedia, would enable larger institutions to permanently embed gender equality within their organisational culture. Institutions that currently host, or have hosted, a Wikipedian in Residence include libraries such as the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales and the Wellcome Library, and also charities, museums, archives, the Royal ­Society of Chemistry, heritage organisations such as Museums Galleries Scotland, UNESCO and universities like Edinburgh.

Recognising women’s achievements and contributions through creating and editing Wikipedia ­articles can encourage the next generation to take up careers in science, as you cannot be what you cannot see.

This could help address workforce shortages across many STEM fields and generate significant amounts of economic growth through diversifying innovation and entrepreneurship, helping to ensure women’s ­scientific breakthroughs can continue to shape our world for the better.

Ewan McAndrew is a Wikimedian in residence at the University of Edinburgh, Siobhan O’Connor is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Sara Thomas is Scotland programme co-ordinator for Wikimedia UK and Dr Alice White is a digital editor at Wellcome Collection, London.