#WikiHerStory: Physicist by day, Wikipedia editor by night

A series showcasing the women behind Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects.

Wikimedia
Down the Rabbit Hole

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Dr. Jess Wade has written nearly 1,000 Wikipedia biographies about women, people of color and LGBTQ+ scientists.

You might already know Dr. Jess Wade from one of her numerous speeches, media appearances, or even her Wikipedia page. The London-based physicist has been making waves since she started editing Wikipedia in 2017, becoming a high-profile voice for the representation of women in science online.

At times, it has felt like an uphill battle. Dr. Wade has faced backlash for some of her efforts to chronicle the accomplishments of women in science, such as when other editors deleted a biography she authored of American nuclear chemist Clarice Phelps. The ensuing controversy led to an important broader conversation about notability, and today, Clarice Phelps’ Wikipedia page is back online.

When she’s not conducting physics research at her day job, Dr. Wade contributes to Wikipedia prolifically: Every night, she writes biographies of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ scientists. To date, she’s written nearly 1,000 articles.

“It’s still a thrill going to sleep having made a bunch of changes, and waking up to see users in different time zones have picked up where you left off,” said Dr. Wade.

By ensuring these stories get told, she is giving a new generation of budding scientists the gift of role models who look like them. This, in turn, is a vital part of developing greater diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

We spoke to Dr. Wade as part of our new #WikiHerStory initiative, launched this month for Women’s History Month, about her views on gender equity, Wikipedia and COVID-19, and more.

#WikiHerStory seeks to raise awareness of and generate solutions for closing the gender gap on Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects. It also aims to showcase the inspiring people — such as Dr. Wade — and projects working towards gender equity on the platforms.

Here are some highlights from our conversation with Dr. Jess Wade*:

Q: What is a surprising thing you’ve learned or experienced as a Wikimedia volunteer?

How many people use Wikipedia! It’s staggering to think that over 70 million people use the site every day. I was also amazed to learn about the top levels of Wikipedia — how it is entirely created by volunteers, how almost all decisions are made by a team of super-editors, how speedily inappropriate or poorly-cited content gets taken down, and how quickly IP addresses are blocked for frequent misconduct.

I love things like the open access citation bot that crawls through pages replacing pay-walled content with the free-to-read version and the offline access to medical Wikipedia. Honestly, it is so refreshing to be part of a project where people volunteer their time and expertise to better inform the world around them.

Q: What does gender equity on the Wikimedia projects mean to you?

I’d like more people who identify as women to get involved with editing and, ultimately, more biographies of people who identify as women to find homes on the site. I’d like women to be more regularly nominated for “Did You Know” and to appear on Wikipedia’s front page. I’d like there to be more traffic to women scientist’s profiles. I’d like to hear an impressive woman on the radio or television, or meet an impressive woman speaker at a scientific conference, and find that she’s already got a biography. I’d really like women from the global south to be represented on Wikipedia, and to become involved with writing their own stories.

Q: What advice would you give women who are interested in getting involved in Wikimedia projects?

First and foremost, make a Wikipedia account! Then find a local edit-a-thon or a conveniently timed meet-up that you can join online. Check out Wiki Project Women in Red or Wiki Project Women Scientists or Wiki Project LGBT to find like-minded editors with shared values. I recently did an interview with TED about how people can contribute.

Q: What advice would you give to men who would like to support more gender equity across Wikimedia projects?

Exactly the same as I’d give the women! Maybe even more so — it shouldn’t only be up to women and minorities to advocate for women and minorities.

Q: Wikipedia is being used worldwide as a source for information about COVID-19. What would you say to people who are unsure about how much to trust Wikipedia?

The COVID-19 outbreak emphasizes the importance of a crowd-sourced, global, regularly-updated, neutral source of information. All around the world, people are getting increasingly panicky, switching off the news and turning to social media — which is awash with misinformation and pseudoscience.

This pandemic isn’t just a public health issue, it’s a social issue: one that risks becoming weaponized by politicians who use their platforms to provide incorrect information to a nervous public. Whilst (some) journalists are doing a valiant effort to keep the world informed, news is evolving so quickly they’re out of date as soon as they’re in print. Wikipedia’s COVID-19 pages — rigorously fact-checked by medics, public health professionals and other academics alike — are being edited almost every minute of the day, available in nearly 90 languages, and totally non-partisan.

Q: In light of COVID-19, do you have advice for other scientists and researchers who are considering contributing to Wikipedia?

If you’re in epidemiology/ virology, thanks for all of your phenomenal research and efforts so far. To say that life is going to be very bizarre for the next few months is an understatement; and I recognize that most researchers will have different priorities than they did two weeks ago (homeschooling kids, looking after/caring for elderly parents, remote meetings, and online teaching).

If you find yourself in need of a distraction, Wikipedia is always open! As parents worldwide search for teaching material, Wikipedia will be relied on more and more for education. If you have any capacity to get involved — whether that’s to create new content, clarify a confusing topic or translate a page out of English — you’ll have even more of a captive audience than ever before.

Q: How can other women work with or support you/your project/group?

Awesome, thanks for helping out! First and foremost, learn to edit Wikipedia (see above). If that’s not your thing, send me suggestions of women scientists and engineers who are overlooked. I spend a lot of time searching faculty pages and recent announcements of award winners or fellows of scientific societies. Despite my best efforts, finding women of color is still really hard — and even when I find them, it is often tricky to find enough citations to prove that they are notable for Wikipedia. Because women experts are less likely to be quoted in the press, it is harder to prove their merit on Wikipedia. And because they’re less likely to be on Wikipedia, they’re less likely to be quoted in the press. So if you have suggestions, that’s great.

If you’re in a position to quote or profile scientists, engineers and their research on your own platform — that’s really handy for me.

And if you’re in a position to nominate people from historically minoritized groups for prizes and awards — that’s perfect! We know that the criteria used to prove academic notability is biased toward white male academics — but that’s because academia does a better job of recognizing their accomplishments. But the only people who can change that are us.

Q: In three words, how would you describe your experience as a Wikimedia volunteer?

Important — what Wikipedia editors do is valuable. Wikipedia is used directly by school children, teachers, lecturers, doctors, journalists and broadcasters. It is used indirectly by almost all home assistants (Amazon Alexa, Siri, etc.) — so the information we put on it is incredibly important. The internet facilitates the spread of pseudoscience and misinformation, and Wikipedia is the only community-led place left online where we can challenge that.

Inspiring — every time I write for Wikipedia I learn so much about a new field. I love reading about people’s research — and their journey to becoming a researcher. Whilst I feel most comfortable editing about physics and chemistry, writing scientist’s biographies has taught me a whole bunch of new techniques. Editing Wikipedia has given me a better appreciation for history — I love using archived newspapers to piece together someone’s past.

Hope — no Wikipedia page is ever complete, no story ever fully told. I really like the collaborative teamwork aspects of Wikipedia. No one is an expert on every topic — and Wikipedia’s need for unbiased content means that no single author should dictate a page’s narrative. Wikipedia is written and read by people all over the world, and the fact that so many people want to work together to share knowledge makes me hopeful.

Q: What has made you stay involved in the Wikimedia movement?

How much I get to learn! Writing for Wikipedia can take me from the chemistry of deep sea corals to the bone structures of ancient fish, from Earth-like exoplanets to the crystal structure of organic molecules — all from the comfort and safety of my own keyboard. I love seeing people’s responses to the pages popping up — sometimes I get emails from distant family members, sometimes I see their names popping up on lists like the BBC 100 Women … and sometimes I even get to meet the heroes I write about.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Wikimedia
Down the Rabbit Hole

The official Medium account for the Wikimedia Foundation and the sum of all knowledge, Wikipedia.