Canadian Nobel scientist's deletion from Wikipedia points to wider bias, study finds

A new study shows volunteer editors nominate women’s pages on Wikipedia for deletion at a higher rate than men’s pages. CBC's Manjula Selvarajah looks at why that happens and why it matters.

Physicist Donna Strickland's case wasn't unique: A new study suggests why women's profiles get erased

Nobel-winning physicist Donna Strickland is shown in a lab at the University of Waterloo on Oct. 2, 2018. When Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, she didn't have an entry on Wikipedia. (University of Waterloo)

Wikipedia — the world's largest online encyclopedia — celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. One of the biggest collaborative efforts in human history, thousands of volunteers around the world create and edit the content on its pages.

And those editors even have camps with competing philosophies: the deletionists who have high standards for content versus the inclusionists who take a broader view to what makes it in.

But all is not well in the Wikipedia world.

A new study by American sociologist Francesca Tripodi shows that its volunteer editors nominate women's pages on Wikipedia for deletion at a higher rate than men's pages.

It found that women make up only 19 per cent of all profiles, but account for a quarter of page-deletion recommendations.

Tripodi uncovered the discrepancy by analyzing logs from Wikipedia's "articles for deletion" process from the start of 2017 until the end of February 2020. It's the process by which volunteers can examine articles under scrutiny, add to discussions about the merits of an article, and determine whether an article should be kept, deleted or merged into an already-existing page.

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When Canadian scientist Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize, she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. Turns out her page had been deleted by editors years ago, despite having a notable body of work. A new study says Wikipedia suffers from a problem of deletionism when it comes to women’s biographies. CBC’s Manjula Selvarajah takes a look.

The case of the Canadian Nobel prizewinner

A well-known example is what happened to Canadian scientist Donna Strickland, who couldn't be found on Wikipedia immediately after she won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 (although she does have a Wikipedia page now.) 

"People started realizing, 'Oh my goodness, here is this extremely remarkable Nobel Prize winner who doesn't have a Wikipedia page. How is that possible?'" Tripodi recalled.

"But then [they] realized, 'Oh dear, it's even worse than we thought.' Because she did have a Wikipedia page. But it was nominated for deletion and then deleted." 

There is some contention over why Strickland's page was deleted.

Why it happens

Some critics say it was gender bias, while others say it was a problem with notability, a gauge editors use to determine if a topic deserves a Wiki page. Wikipedia editors must be able to verify facts about any Wiki entry against published reliable sources, from publications to the press.

Interpretations of what is notable lead to gender inequality on the platform, said Tripodi, who is an assistant professor and a senior researcher at the Centre for Information Technology and Public Life at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"So there's already this first layer of difficulty when it comes to adding women, because there's just less material out there in the world that is required in order to establish notability on Wikipedia," she said.

A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop screen inside the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco in this 2012 file photo. (Eric Risberg/The Associated Press)

Another issue is that most of Wikipedia's editors are men.

According to a Wikimedia report in 2018, 90 per cent of contributors to its projects are men.

Strickland's case wasn't an anomaly, said Tripodi. "What I discovered is even women who are meeting these notoriously difficult hurdles of notability are still twice as likely to be considered non-notable and nominated for deletion."

Efforts to fix gender imbalance face hurdles

Over the years, women have tried to fix the gender imbalance on Wikipedia, running edit-a-thons to change that ratio.

Tripodi said these efforts to add notable women to the website have moved the needle — but have also run into roadblocks.

"They're welcoming new people who've never edited Wikipedia, and they're editing at these events," she said. "But then after all of that's done, after these pages are finally added, they have to double back and do even more work to make sure that the article doesn't get deleted after being added."

Virginia Balcom is the executive director of Simon Fraser University's business accelerator Venture Labs. Her team partnered with a local women's organization to run a virtual edit-a-thon around International Women's Day this year.

She and the team are proud of the Canadian entrepreneurs and scientists they added to Wikipedia during the event, including Stephanie Simmons, founder and chief quantum officer for Photonic Inc., and Teara Fraser, founder and CEO of Iskwew Air. 

But they did worry that the submitted profiles would be reviewed by editors for notability, then downgraded and not published, she said.

Volunteers participate in an 'edit-a-thon' at Ingenium in Ottawa in 2019, adding more women scientists to Wikipedia to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. (Ingenium)

Balcom recalled a frustrating debate by editors over the page of a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University and whether or not she was notable.

"But the good news was that in the end, they decided there was enough third-party reliable support and her profile is also now published," Balcom said. "Women are often not the ones covered in media … and therefore they don't have the notability requirements that some of the editors in Wikipedia are leaning on." 

Tripodi heard the same story from other edit-a-thon groups, saying women editors spoke to her about the additional labour they have to put in to get the profiles they create of prominent women to stay on the site.

Steps toward change?

The Wikimedia Foundation, which funds Wikipedia, acknowledges that articles on the online encyclopedia are not representative of the impact that women have had throughout history, saying that mirrors the world's gender biases.

In a statement to CBC News, the foundation said research like Tripodi's is "critical to understanding the scope of the issue so we can collectively find ways to address it."

For example, the foundation launched a campaign this past March during Women's History Month, called Project Rewrite, to raise awareness about and address the lack of source material about women.

Women editors have increased 30 per cent in the past year, thanks to volunteer-led initiatives, it added.

It matters whether Wikipedia and its editors get this right, said Tripodi, because Wikipedia is "the go-to for what we know or what we want to know."

"And so when women go absent from those spaces, we are erased from that historical memory," she said. "Both now … and in the future."

With files from Emily Chung


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