Wikipedia Day — Celebrating Wikipedians across the globe

Alex Jackson

Digital Science
Jan 15 · 8 min read

“It is like a library or a public park. A temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others,” states Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales.

When the US entrepreneur first mooted the idea of an online encyclopaedia (in 2001) which could be created by allowing anyone to build pages on any topic, it seemed a fairly novel, yet improbable concept. Not even Wales though could have predicted it would evolve into the world’s leading general reference work and the fifth most visited website in the world.

The numbers are staggering. There are now over 300 active Wikipedias in different languages across the globe, with 48 million articles written worldwide. Of these, 5.7 million articles are on the English language version, and there are now more than a quarter of a million international editors every single month. It remains very much a community-driven project – however with such growth, comes challenges.

In recent years, it has contended with the threat of paid-for Wikipedia content, criteria selection scrutiny, political bias and the spread of misinformation. “It is a living contestation for how knowledge is formed and created,” says Wikimedia Foundation executive director, Katherine Maher. “Wikipedia reflects knowledge as it exists at any given moment in time.”

A 2016 study by the University of Maryland and Stanford University researchers found that Wikipedia was better than most platforms at fighting misinformation. It showed that the site caught 99 per cent of attempted hoaxes in the first minute, yet those that survived the initial review by editors “attracted significant attention and a large number of page views.”

This success rate may in part be why YouTube announced at SXSW last year that it was looking to use Wikipedia articles within conspiracy theory videos, in an effort to debunk them. However, it was an announcement which took the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation which runs Wikipedia by surprise, and lead some to argue YouTube was “outsourcing responsibility for the truth.”

Wikipedia still has areas where it drastically needs to improve, both in its coverage of women and people of colour, and its skewed editor base. Between 84 to 91 per cent of its editors are men from a very narrow demographic and out of the 1.5 million biographies on Wikipedia, only 17.8 per cent focus on women.

It is a problem Wikimedia is “acutely aware of” and there are numerous groups, institutions and individuals such as Art+Feminism, Women’s Classical Committee, Jess Wade and Wikipedia’s own Women in Red project, who are vastly increasing visibility and coverage. Wikipedia edit-a-thons have also had a big impact since they first started as informal gatherings in 2011. There are now around 500 events worldwide where more than 7,000 volunteers have helped edit over 11,000 Wikipedia articles (including our own).

One initiative which has grown and thrived throughout is the GLAM-Wiki movement which sees galleries, libraries, archives, and museums share their resources with the world through collaborative projects with Wikipedia editors. The project has become hugely popular since Liam Wyatt became the world’s first Wikipedian in Residence in June 2010 at the British Museum.

On Wikipedia’s 18th birthday, we speak to four Wikipedians from across the globe about their experiences as Wikipedians / Wikimedians in Residence and how they contribute to the site.


Netha Hussain

It was only when Netha Hussain stumbled on a medical newsletter in 2014 that she realised the true impact of Wikipedia. Three years earlier, the pathology student at Calicut Medical College, India, had uploaded some pictures of histology slides from the department laboratory onto Wikimedia Commons. “I found that the image I uploaded in 2011 was used to illustrate an article in the newsletter,” says Hussain.

Buoyed by this inclusion, Hussain approached the head of department to see if she could upload more images of histology slides and “gross pathology specimens.” The department agreed to donate images and Hussain took on the voluntary role of Wikimedian in Residence at the college. While juggling work and study hours with her new role, Hussain procured rare images and wrote descriptions for each of them. “There is a dearth of good quality free images related to medicine,” says Hussain, the first ever GLAM resident in a medical school’s laboratory, between October 2014 and January 2016.

A Wikimedian since 2010, the Kozhikode-born researcher originally started writing articles in Malayalam Wikipedia, after finding out there were few articles in the Dravidian language. She later focused on English-language medical articles, notable women in medicine and historical events in India. “In India, people see Wikipedia as a quick reference,” states Hussain. “Many use the site for fact-checking hearsay and common knowledge.”

Hussain moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2016, to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. She believes Wikipedia is an important medium for science communication. “Although most people don’t read research papers, they do read Wikipedia articles,” she says. “Researchers can take advantage of this fact and communicate their research outcomes to the public through Wikipedia.” Hussain acknowledges that lack of time outside of research is a huge challenge and thinks universities and hospitals should use some of their resources to help their staff edit the site.

“The only way to curb fake news and spread the right information is by engaging researchers in science communication, and Wikipedia is a great tool for science communication,” she concludes.


Red de Leon

Bantayog’s Inang Bayan Monument, Philippines

“Museums and libraries are our last line of defence in a post-truth world,” says former professor, Red de Leon. “It’s essential that these repositories of knowledge are covered by every widely distributed reference resource, especially Wikipedia.”

Red has been part of a group of editors who have met regularly since 2016, concerned by what they call “historical denialism” on the site. He refers to articles charting the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos over three periods of Philippine history (1965–1986). “We want to make sure the events of the Marcos dictatorship are properly contextualised, factually accurate, and documented on Wikipedia,” he says.

The advocacy consultant from the country’s most populous city, Quezon City, became the Wikipedian in Residence at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes, Bantayog Memorial) in April last year. The memorial dedicated to individuals who fought the 21-year dictatorship is a fitting setting for Red’s editing efforts and has seen him train staff, give talks, and run workshops. The residency, which has recently concluded, provided the perfect opportunity to focus on a complex, wide-ranging topic, which Red says was “a dream come true.”

“As a Wikipedian, you get to do something you love every day,” he says. “You get the fulfilment of knowing that the thing you do honours the memory of those people who gave up so much — the martyrs and heroes who fought a dictatorship.”

Red believes there is a challenge, however, in engaging scholars and journalists in the Philippines with Wikipedia. Despite the site being the tenth most visited in the country, he argues there is a disconnect between the attitudes of potential editors and the number of passive users. “So many of the people who could most effectively apply academic rigour to the text of the articles simply aren’t paying attention,” he says. “That disconnect is one of the things the project continues to help correct.”


Kelly Doyle

When Kelly Doyle first saw the advert for the role of Wikipedian in Residence for Gender Equity at West Virginia University, she knew it would be a great opportunity to improve the diversity of content and editors on Wikipedia. Successfully recruited, Doyle began building awareness of the site and its gender gap within the university, cultivating Wikipedia literacy skills and encouraging people to re-evaluate their previous thoughts on the online encyclopaedia.

The Philadelphia-born Wikipedian created a service learning model which soon helped find new editors and broadened the type of students and individuals who engage with Wikipedia. “Increasing our diversity and gender equity coverage in terms of content and editors is necessary for Wikipedia to have a future,” says Doyle, a current board member of the Wikimedia District of Columbia.

“Wikipedia and its community needs to reflect the world around us. Representation matters but it also matters that we increase our content and editor base the right way.”

Doyle considers the Wikipedian in Residence schemes, particularly in a university setting, as crucial to help change minds about what Wikipedia is, and its potential and capacity in the future. “Most of the negative assertions about Wikipedia could be combated if individuals and/ or groups took the time to understand it better and participated in the process — and realise that Wikipedia and academia are allies in education,” exclaims Doyle.

Looking back on nearly three years in the role, Doyle, who takes on a new role at the Smithsonian early this year, believes she helped shift the attitudes of both students and academics. “I personally think Wikipedia has value in every discipline at the university level — more engagement is simply needed to scale this.”


Nkansah Rexford

From standing at the edge of Table Mountain, peering down more than 3,400 feet into the ocean, to documenting overcrowding on trains at Maitland station in Cape Town, Nkansah Rexford’s time at the Africa Centre was never dull. Realising content about his native Ghana and Africa at large was scarce on Wikipedia, he was keen to get involved and help expand coverage.

“I wanted to get more hands on deck, and together improve and contribute to Wikipedia and its sister projects, particularly African content,” he says. Research by Oxford University in 2016 found that only 16 per cent of content about sub-Saharan Africa is written by people from the region. The vast majority of articles written about African countries on Wikipedia was by editors in Europe and North America.

Rexford spent the best part of a year in 2014 at the Africa Centre, an African arts and culture NGO. He worked on projects such as WikiAfrica expanding knowledge about Africa on Wikipedia, the first Open Advocate event in Cape Town, and uploaded thousands of photos from museums and other historic and heritage sites. “I really cherish the memories and associations I had working at the Africa Centre,” brims Rexford. “I first got involved with Wikipedia in 2012 after learning it was run by volunteers across the world. I couldn’t believe it.”

The web and mobile developer, based in Accra, Ghana, says many people in Africa perceive the platform as a “one-stop shop” for reliable information about a wide range of subjects. He thinks Wikipedia will become increasingly important in the future as more African content is added, but still believes many do not know they can contribute to the site.

“Expanding projects like WikiAfrica means more reach, which will hopefully lead to more contributions,” says Rexford. “I think they’re hugely important to improving the content of Wikipedia and beyond. Personally, I have an instinctive love for open source, open knowledge and open access to education, so the opportunity to improve content really drew me to Wikipedia.”


As John Naughton concisely puts it — “(Wikipedia) is a site that embodies the potential of the internet to harness the collective intelligence of humanity.” And long may it continue to do so.

Digital Science will continue to help find ways to update Wikipedia biographies, articles and Wikidata through future events and programmes.

Digital Science

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