Meet some of the women sharing reliable COVID-19 information with the world on Wikipedia

Apr 3, 2020 · 8 min read
We spoke to four women who are updating Wikipedia with facts about COVID-19 to help keep the public informed.

In one antiquated brain teaser, a boy and his father, both hurt in an accident, are taken to separate hospitals. The doctor tasked with treating the boy looks at him and says, “I can’t operate; this is my son.” How is this possible?

The answer is that the doctor is the boy’s mother. This scenario has puzzled listeners for too long because of deep-seated stereotypes about who does what in our societies. The truth is, we can learn more — and do better — when everyone contributes, without gender stereotypes as a limiting factor.

As the world comes together to fight the spread of COVID-19, women are making an impact everywhere from emergency rooms to research labs. They are making an impact on Wikipedia, the world’s resource for free knowledge, too.

An important part of our shared battle against the pandemic is ensuring that factual, reliable information is readily accessible to all. We spoke to four women — Netha Hussain; User:WhispyHistory, who prefers to go by their Wikipedia username; Camelia Boban; and Valeria Borsotti — who are updating information on COVID-19 and related topics on Wikipedia to help keep the public informed.

“We can learn more — and do better — when everyone contributes, without gender stereotypes as a limiting factor.”

These four women are part of an active community of thousands of volunteers around the world who are adding, improving, and translating articles related to COVID-19. The main English Wikipedia article about the coronavirus pandemic has received more than 20 million views and upwards of 17,000 edits. In total, articles about the pandemic have been viewed more than 185 million times.

Netha, a Wikimedia volunteer for over a decade, is a physician and researcher who has contributed to English Wikipedia, Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, Metawiki, and Malayalam Wikipedia. User:WhispyHistory is a UK-based doctor and member of WikiProject Medicine who started editing three years ago as part of a medical edit-a-thon and has been contributing ever since. Camelia is an economist and a software developer; she is also the chair and co-founder of the WikiDonne User Group on Italian wikis, devoted to increasing diversity within the movement and adding more content about women to Wikimedia projects. Valeria is a social anthropologist who joined as a new volunteer through WikiDonne, and began adding information about COVID-19 researchers to Wikipedia as Italy went under lockdown.

Here are some highlights from our conversations with Valeria, Camelia, WhispyHistory, and Netha:*

Q: How do you currently participate in the Wikimedia movement, especially in relation to contributing to articles around COVID-19?

Netha: I have been volunteering with Wikimedia for around 10 years, but my experience with COVID-19 content is different from anything I have done thus far.

I think that it is my duty as a Wikimedian, medical doctor, and researcher to ensure that reliable information is presented to everyone around the world. I have been writing new articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic in different countries (most importantly, India), biographies of leading COVID-19 researchers, the effect of COVID-19 on pregnancy, and the human rights issues that emerge during the pandemic. I am updating several articles on the COVID-19 disease, testing, and pandemic articles by region.

Alongside this work, I have started a translation task force, which contains short versions of essential English Wikipedia articles related to COVID-19. The idea is to help smaller language communities that do not have resources to create an article from scratch or translate a long article from English. They can now translate the short versions of important articles related to COVID-19. I would like to spread the word regarding this effort in order to have articles related to COVID-19 on all language editions of Wikipedia.

I am also thinking that articles that do not deal with the pandemic itself, but are related to the pandemic, are receiving a lot of pageviews, such as the articles on physical distancing, Contagion (film), and mortality rate.

WhispyHistory: I came across COVID-19 due to my interest in the spread of infection via aviation. Now, I concentrate on doctors, researchers, and other people involved in COVID-19; campaigns for public health; and anything that may be new, interesting, or a challenge or that may be a request to help from another editor. I keep an eye out on some talk pages (where editors discuss changes to articles and where further improvements can be made) of the main COVID-19 articles to see where support may be needed.

Camelia: After participating in my first Wikimania conference, I really understood the incredible difference between the presence of women’s and men’s biographies in Italian Wikipedia: 14.6 percent versus 85.4 percent. This made me realize that writing female biographies needs to be done constantly and not only on March 8th (International Women’s Day). For this, I created the WikiDonne project and co-founded the WikiDonne User Group to reduce the gender gap online.

More recently, I joined the “writing week” that the Italian community organized as a LockedDown edit-a-thon to write articles related to the Italian territories most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Valeria: I originally started contributing to Wikipedia with a special focus on computer scientists, since I am an anthropologist interested in issues of discrimination and social inclusion in tech. So, I translated women’s biographies into Italian from English. I also try to add Italian women in computer science or other STEM fields to Wikipedia. Recently, I learned that SARS-CoV-2 in Italy had been first isolated by a team of three women biologists in February, the first in Europe to achieve this feat.

The women have received a lot of attention about their accomplishments in Italian media. However, when I checked Italian Wikipedia, I could not find the scientists’ names — they were simply not there. They were not even named on the page dedicated to the Institute of Infectious Diseases Spallanzani — where they work. So I decided to add their biographies to Italian Wikipedia (their names, by the way, are Francesca Colavita, Maria Rosaria Capobianchi, and Concetta Castilletti).

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 to learn about the pandemic?

Netha: Many Wikipedia articles related to COVID-19, such as the one about the pandemic and the disease, are reliable thanks to the work of thousands of editors from around the globe like myself. In emergency situations like this, it is not possible for traditional encyclopedias, or even some governments, to access, filter, analyse, and summarize massive loads of information coming from around the world every day and make it available in roughly 300 languages. This is only possible with a large global network of volunteers and a platform such as Wikipedia. The references used on articles related to COVID-19 come from trusted sources such as the World Health Organization. Hundreds of volunteers are watching COVID-19 related articles to make sure that no misinformation creeps in.

WhispyHistory: With COVID-19, you will find that there is no major textbook summarizing the disease and events. There is much relying on new research papers. You will find sentences on Wikipedia articles such as “the CDC reports this,” the “WHO reports this,” and so forth. The quality of references is key to assessing the article. Every sentence on Wikipedia must be supported by a reliable source.

Most people who regularly contribute to the COVID-19 articles are doing it in good faith to provide unbiased information and a clear narrative. It is actually quite difficult to add to most COVID-19 articles. They are watched closely by numerous editors. It is easy to delete something that is obviously harmful.

Q: What’s a common misconception about Wikipedia that you’d like to rebut?

WhispyHistory: That anyone can edit it in any way they like. A disruptive edit might be made by someone who thinks they can, but it will be deleted, often within minutes.

Valeria: Perhaps too many people are still not aware of the fact that anybody, if following the provided guidelines, can contribute to Wikipedia. You don’t need to be a tech person to contribute, or an academic.

Q: In light of the pandemic, do you have advice for other medical experts and researchers who are considering contributing to Wikipedia?

Netha: While a lot of work is being done on Wikipedia, there is a lot more to do. We need to update existing articles with new information as new research becomes available. We need to add more information on how COVID-19 affects other aspects of life, such as mental health, arts and culture, open access, telecommuting, medical ethics, and social gatherings, to name a few.

If there is no data regarding something, researchers should let the public know that there is no reliable data, in order to avoid room for misinformation. For example, there is an article about a COVID-19 vaccine summarizing the state of research of the vaccine, even though no vaccine is made available yet. This article explicitly says that no vaccine for COVID-19 has finished clinical trials yet. To fight misinformation, I think it is important that Wikipedia gives information also on things that are hypothetical or things that don’t exist.

Predictions show that COVID-19 will remain a crisis for a long time, so it is likely that many editors may get exhausted with the high work demand. We’ll need more experts to step up and help in updating the tables and timelines related to COVID-19 daily. We’ll also need more hands to work on state-specific and county-specific articles and timelines about the pandemic when they get created.

WhispyHistory: I would encourage any experts to make suggestions on the talk pages. I would ask them to note what has been done well, as well as what should be changed. I would emphasize that they back any suggestions with a link to a reference that is preferably a review paper, textbook, or official guidance. I would say to experts and researchers that if they introduced themselves, they would be very welcome by other editors. The talk page on Wiki Project Medicine is an incredible forum for discussion too.

Q: How can other people help support your work to add and improve COVID-19 articles on Wikipedia?

Netha: Join WikiProject: COVID-19 and take up the tasks needing attention. Write articles related to COVID-19 in your language edition; you can use the translation task force for support. If you haven’t ever edited Wikipedia, try it for the first time now and help those in need of information.

WhispyHistory: Everyone has the potential to contribute. You don’t have to be a scholar. Each article is built grain by grain, in steps of varying sizes. The grammar, prose, layout, images, and charts are just as important and sometimes more complex than the content. Simply reading the article and making a suggestion is also a contribution.

Valeria: If you want to join #WikiGap and focus on COVID-19, one way could be to add the biographies (or even just the names, in related articles) of the notable women working as researchers, practitioners, and activists during this healthcare emergency in your country. The healthcare and biomedical sector is predominantly female-dominated in many countries (like Denmark, where I live), so I suspect you can find many good examples!

Camelia: Other users can support WikiDonne User Group projects by joining the participants list, checking the project’sFacebook page and group, and communicating on the group or project talk page.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Facts, stories, and people from the Wikimedia movement