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This article was published on July 31, 2019

Wikipedia bios for women scientists are more likely to be flagged for removal

Wikipedia bios for women scientists are more likely to be flagged for removal
Cara Curtis
Story by

Cara Curtis

Former TNW writer

It comes as no surprise that women are grossly underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Although the stats are disheartening, it doesn’t reflect women‘s ability, instead it acts as a stern reminder on the realities of the society we live in.

This reality is that, even from a young age, girls are discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM, and instead are told to look pretty and be “princesses.” It’s also a time when women who have carved out their career in science are struggling to get acknowledgement for their work and discoveries as Wikipedia is removing the biographies of women scientists. 

Currently, just 17 percent of the English-language biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and women scientists in particular are poorly represented. A few months ago, Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist, tweeted how her Wikipedia page was flagged for deletion. This came after the online encyclopedia platform had removed Clarice Phelps’, an African-American nuclear scientist, bio three times during Black History Month in February. 

Tuttle and Phelps’ entries on Wikipedia were written by physicist Jessica Wade, an advocate for diversity in science. Wade balances her work as an award-winning physicist at Imperial College London with her role as a ‘Wikipedian’ — creating and uploading the biographies of scientists who are women, people of color, and part of the LGBTQ+ community every day.

“I’ve spent the last year trying to improve the representation of women scientists and engineers on Wikipedia, to celebrate the important contributors of underrepresented groups.” Wade told TNW. “I’ve recently just written my 700th biography.”

Since the beginning of Wade’s work on Wikipedia, she’s seen first hand how editors at Wikipedia simply pick and choose what bios meet the platforms expectations. Out of the 700 entries Wade has published so far, six biographies have been removed. According to Wade, almost every single Wikipedia entry is being scrutinized – particularly those on ethnic minority women. 

“Wikipedia is created, edited, and policed by volunteers,” Wade told TNW during yesterday’s Answers Session. “The challenge with getting the biographies of women and underrepresented minority scientists on the site is fulfilling the notability criteria – despite being equally as brilliant, women are less likely to be nominated for fellowships and awards, treated unfairly in peer-review and grant allocation, are less likely to be covered by the media and are more likely to take on ‘academic housekeeping’ roles.”

As Wikipedia continues to remove the entries of women in STEM, some have argued that the platform is discriminating and holds a systematic bias against anyone who isn’t a straight white man. 

“I find it incredibly frustrating that anonymous editors can have the final say in whether a scientist is or isn’t worthy of a space on the site,” Wade said. “Whilst the scientists and engineers I write about are always notable, occasionally there isn’t enough independent coverage to satisfy other Wikipedia editors. When a scientist is only spoken about on their employer’s website or in a local group it can be tricky to prove their wider impact – so I’ve been nominating people for prizes as much as I can.”

Wade argues that we need more diversity within the Wikipedia editing community so the content better reflects the real world. “But alongside that, we need to get better at recognizing and talking about the work of women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled scientists so there are enough independent sources we can cite when writing their bios,” Wade added.

Wade’s work to improve science‘s diversity shows that women have always been there, they’ve just not been celebrated, until now. But Wikipedia’s process of justifying entries is just another hurdle for underrepresented groups in STEM. 

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