Edit-a-Thon Seeks to Fix Wikipedia’s Gaps in Science

Greg Boustead, program manager for education and outreach at the Simons Foundation, talking about Wikipedia's gender gap | Ashley Gilleland

The Wiki ecosystem—including Wikipedia, Wikinews, Wikiquote, Wikimedia, Wikidata, Wikisource, among others—is one often misunderstood by academics and scholars, particularly in science, despite the fact such ecosystems are the home page of scientific exploration for the public. Around 8,000 people visit Wikipedia every second to read one of its 37,000,000 articles in over 290 languages. 

In an effort to combat this stigma and provide a solution, the Wiki Education Foundation, in partnership with the Simons Foundation, held four Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons on 13-14 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting, as part of the Wikipedia Year of Science. Expert Wikipedians came over to train scientists on how to edit and create content on the free encyclopedia to develop accurate, balanced, readable, and less jargon-stuffed science entries. 

“This is the single-largest collection of human-general knowledge in the planet…We can bemoan the quality of science information on Wikipedia or we can work together to make it better. I would even argue that science communicators have an obligation to make sure the information on Wikipedia is as accurate as possible,” said Greg Boustead, program manager for education and outreach at the Simons Foundation.

Boustead said there were at least 65 pages created and edited during the AAAS Wiki Edit-a-Thon and those have had over 900,000 views already. 

Attendees at the AAAS Annual Meeting's Wiki Edit-a-Thon. The Simons Foundation's first Wiki Edit-a-Thon was at the American Physical Society (APS) meeting | Ashley Gilleland

At the AAAS Annual Meeting, editors and their Wikipedians worked on the Wiki page for Ann McKee, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Act, and newly created pages for women such as Jean Maria Arrigo and Janet Werker.

Other than being the number one entry that normally appears on Google searches, particularly for science-related topics, Wikipedia’s idea of authorship is a nonconventional one. Wikipedia’s policy itself excludes traditional authors and forbids original research and prefers only that which is “verifiable” in outside sources, according to Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia’s authority rests not on credentials of individual editors, but on policies, procedures, and the strength of consensus among collaborators,” said Ryan McGrady.

Furthermore, McGrady states that authors are supposed to adhere to a “neutral point of view,” but neutrality in this case is defined by “the prevalence of ideas in existing literature, not the discretion of an author.”

Thanks to the Wiki Ed Foundation, Boustead said there are numerous institutions across the U.S. using Wikipedia as a teaching tool where students create or improve Wikipedia articles as opposed to writing a traditional term paper that may or may not be read by many people.

The Wiki Ed Foundation states that since 2010 around 400 schools have incorporated editing Wikipedia into their curriculum, including universities such as Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown University. Students from these institutions have created and contributed around 35,000 articles to the Wikipedia site.

Daniel Mietchen at the Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon hosted by AAAS, the Wiki Ed Foundation, and the Simons Foundation | Juan David Romero

“I have been active at the interphase between Wikimedia and science for many years and Wikimedia is often organizing such Edit-a-Thons, but rarely in the scientific setting. Here, the majority of people attending the conference are scientists and that provides a unique opportunity to really get newcomers involved and contribute to high-quality content immediately,” said Daniel Mietchen, a biophysicist by training and Wikimedian of Open Science at the Open Knowledge Institute Foundation.

High-quality content is a way of filling the knowledge gaps present in Wikipedia. However, some gaps remain, according to Boustead, who said that there is an imbalance of women and male scientists featured, and that’s where he thinks there is room for improvement.

The Wiki Ed Foundation states that while nearly 90% of Wikipedia’s content is written by men, more than 65% of Wiki Ed Foundation’s student editors are women. Filling this gender content gap, said the Wiki Ed Foundation, is one of their goals in order to bring greater awareness of women’s roles in the sciences.

According to Hilda Bastian, a scientist, blogger, cartoonist, and a moderator at the AAAS Wiki Edit-a-Thon, gender bias in Wikipedia is such a significant challenge it even has its own Wikipedia page. Her latest entry, “Wikipedia Activism and Diversity in Science,” talks about the struggles and the rewards of contributing balanced Wikipedia entries on scientists from minority, marginalized, and under-represented backgrounds.

“Even a small page is better than invisibility in the world’s most-visited central knowledge base,” she said on her blog, talking about her contribution during the AAAS Wiki Edit-a-Thon to the Wikipedia profile for Erin O’Shea, the first woman to head the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institue.

In fact, the final Edit-a-Thon at the AAAS Annual Meeting had “Diversity in Science” as its focus, though it’s not exclusive to the list of Wiki Edit-a-Thons trying to promote diversity in learning spaces. Just the week before the AAAS Annual Meeting, the New York Public Library along with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture held a Black Lives Matter Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon, which sought to improve the narrative of black history and culture on the site, according to Huffington Post Black Voices.

Mary Mark Ockerbloom, Wikipedian in Residence at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and only one of three women to hold that position, came over to the AAAS Wiki Edit-a-Thon to train attendees on Wikipedia | Ashley Gilleland

Mietchen pointed out that he wished more scientists and other communities would participate in these Edit-a-Thons more often. “We’re sitting here on a Sunday and nobody compelled us to come here. It’s a voluntary decision because we think it’s a useful thing to do,” he said.

“People can self-organize their own Edit-a-Thons under the Year of Science and we encourage them to call it the Year of Science, not as a proprietary thing, but more as a celebration and a call to action in the spirit of Wikipedia,” Boustead said.

The Wiki Edit-a-Thons attached to the Year of Science campaign will not stop at AAAS. In fact, the next announced Year of Science Edit-a-Thon will be 4 April at the annual meeting for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in San Diego.

Wikipedians will also be attending other conferences for societies such as the American Chemical Society 21-25 August in Philadelphia and the American Society for Plant Biology 9-13 July in Austin, Texas.