The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Nobel winner Donna Strickland didn’t have a Wikipedia page

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics on Oct. 2. Last May, a Wikipedia entry on Strickland was rejected for her lack of "notability." (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Oct. 2, when Donna Strickland won a Nobel Prize in physics — the committee recognized her work on a method of generating laser beams with ultrashort pulses — she was only the third woman in history to do so. That day, she finally got a Wikipedia page of her own.

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

As a biology professor who edits Wikipedia, Strickland’s story did not surprise me: According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women. What’s more, I have seen the underlying dynamics of this gender gap play out in my undergraduate courses. In 2014, I developed assignments requiring students to edit Wikipedia. One had them choose a woman scientist or an ecologist of any gender, and either start a Wikipedia page or add to their biography. This was partly to lure students into learning some HTML-style coding, but also so they would hone other important, transferrable skills. As a new Wikipedia editor, you learn to follow style rules and policies; you learn how to put work into the public domain while still guarding your intellectual property and how to create fact-checked Open Access Internet resources. I hope, too, this work instills a public-spirited enthusiasm for sharing knowledge.

Donna Strickland, a researcher who was recognized for her work turning lasers into tools, became the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize for physics. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

But what hinders students far more than the technical side is Wikipedia’s editing culture. Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a “drive-by deletion.” It is true some of the articles may have been dismissed due to my students’ inexperience with the community norms about what makes an entry seem substantial and valid. They may have underestimated how much the encyclopedia rests on the connectivity of the Internet: Wikipedia encourages links to other Wikipedia articles and independent third sources like books and newspapers to bolster credibility.

Even with my relative familiarity with the site’s standards, though, I ran into obstacles as well. I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: “Is this person notable enough?”

Contrast this with the example of Alessandro Strumia, a particle physicist at the University of Pisa who — at least, as of this writing — has a Wikipedia page. It contains scant third-party references to why his research is significant. Rather, Strumia is best known for a recent, controversial talk at CERN in which he asserted (among other things) that physics was “invented and built by men.” The section detailing that event has a critical tone, and a lively debate has started over whether his page should be deleted. Still, the question remains: Why, despite Wikipedia’s admonitions that “notability is not temporary” and “notable topics have attracted attention over a sufficiently significant period of time,” was his biography approved in the first place? Apparently, when a subject is not notable, notoriety can suffice — at least for men.

Notability is in itself a thorny, contested concept. The guidelines for academics are superficially straightforward: If you have won a major award, if you are the fellow of a national academy or the head of a society, or if you are a very senior scholar who holds a named chair, then you count as notable. But we live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline. Male students are more likely to be regarded as knowledgeable by their classmates, regardless of their actual academic standing; female students are consistently underestimated. Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women — engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones — another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

Wikipedia has its own internal challenges. Despite the efforts of the Wikimedia Foundation, its community remains stubbornly, predominantly male: Surveys suggest only 9 to 16 percent of Wikipedia contributors are female. Wikipedia’s technical jargon and opaque rules of conduct intimidate newcomers, as do some of the more experienced editors, who jockey for status through edits and in the Talk sections where they are discussed. A 2011 study from the University of Minnesota found that new female editors are much more likely to have their edits reversed, and are more likely to be indefinitely blocked. It’s little surprise, then, that in a one-year span, only 9 percent of changes made by new editors were made by women, and only 6 percent of contributors with more than 500 edits were women. Academics have observed what they call “men’s movement cyber-vigilantes” patrolling the site for references to women, which they find one reason or another to erase.

A few days ago, I learned that someone had made a Wikipedia page for me. Though it was a nice surprise, for me it underscored how adding an entry isn’t about the reinforcing the subject’s ego. I am an ecologist specializing in plants, and when I was growing up, the only woman scientist I could name was Marie Curie. Only after becoming a biology professor did I learn about botanist and geneticist Carrie Derick, who in 1912 became the first woman to hold a University professorship in Canada. And only later, while doing archival research on my sabbatical, did I find out about the hidden figures who had contributed to the field before her: the 19th-century women who collected specimens, ran successful gardening businesses and illustrated plant guides, though they were not recognized as professional botanists in their own right. Perhaps my page will help young people see that someone who was born in India and immigrated to central London, and afterward, suburban Canada, can make it on scholarships to prestigious universities and become a field biologist. Research is a social enterprise: it is important that we have an accurate portrait of its diverse contributors.

Science should be for everybody and accountable to everyone. So should our go-to well of common knowledge. Wikipedia offers us the opportunity to question our preconceived notions of who is worth knowing about.