Saturday, 8 March 2014

Royal Society Wikipedia Editathon Celebrates Diversity in Science

by Julie Lee

On the 4th of March, I attended an event known as an ‘editathon’. This particular event gathered women in order to encourage them to contribute to Wikipedia. It was hosted by The Royal Society in London, in advance of International Women’s Day (today - 8th March). Among other reasons, the editathon was organised to increase the quality and quantity of articles on female scientists on Wikipedia. In addition, the event hoped to encourage women to be longer-term editors of Wikipedia.

The editathon took place over half a day, with an afternoon and an evening session. In the afternoon, Dame Athene Donald, fellow of the Royal Society and professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, provided a thought-provoking talk on diversity in science. In all other respects it was identical to the evening session, which I attended.

The event was led by John Byrne, Royal Society Wikimedian-in-residence, former Treasurer and trustee of Wikimedia UK, and 2012 ‘UK Wikimedian of the year’. Byrne gave a presentation introducing himself, Wikipedia, and good practice when editing. Additionally, his talk highlighted some problems in Wikipedia which the editathon endeavoured to fix - namely, the lack of female editors in Wikipedia (reports estimate about 9%) and the lack of quality articles on female scientists. These problems are likely linked and, further, contribute to the low public profile of esteemed female scientists. 

During the event, a group of 15-20 women worked on their laptops to help those problems, while expert Wikipedia editors roamed the room, providing advice as needed. We were encouraged to start our own articles on prominent women scientists - such as those featured by Discover Magazine. A few of us had some Wikipedia experience; however, most attendees were completely new to the game. By the end of the night, we came away with an enriched understanding of Wikipedia, better skills in editing, and a sense of accomplishment. While some critics may claim that the relative infrequency of good Wikipedia articles on female scientists is due to a simple lack of good female scientists, the event certainly challenged that view. The women we wrote about had held various directorial and professorial roles. 

Another problem Byrne described was that, in recent years, the public understanding of Wikipedia as a resource that anyone can edit has diminished. At the end, the event’s Wikipedia page showed several new articles had been made, in the span of only a couple hours. So, the event hopefully illustrated that anyone with a laptop and something to contribute can create meaningful resources for others to explore. In particular, scientists tend to grasp good editing principles right off the bat. I chatted to one of the Wikipedia volunteers, who noted that scientists are usually quick to understand why and when to cite articles - an invaluable part of making Wikipedia credible.

For those Wikipedia sceptics out there: yes, it is really easy to edit Wikipedia. Yes, there sometimes may be inaccuracies. However, Wikipedia is all about crowdsourcing, and within minutes most vandalism disappears. The editors on the wiki work tirelessly, on their own time, to make it great. So, before you criticise Wikipedia, think about how amazing it is that people around the world came together to make a highly-valued resource that print encyclopedias can only dream of. 

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening spent meeting other women and learning about the inner workings of Wikipedia. I would encourage people to visit the Wikipedia event page to examine the fruits of our labour: click here

Lastly, feel free to dive in and do some editing yourself! After all, that is the appeal of Wikipedia.