Hosting an Edit-a-thon

By Maryam Zaringhalam

In nearly any web search, one of the first results to pop up is Wikipedia. It’s a go-to information resource as a site that aims to give free access to the “sum of all human knowledge.” But the scientific contributions of women, gender and sexual minorities, and people of color remain underrepresented on Wikipedia’s pages.

Wikipedia’s gender gap in particular has attracted a great deal of attention, though its racial bias is well-documented. While anyone is free to edit, around 90% of Wikipedia editors are men. To better understand the source of this gender gap, the National Science Foundation awarded grants to Julia Adams at Yale and Hannah Breukner at NYU to address these disparities and reduce bias on Wikipedia. Bias in science itself also creeps into Wikipedia through the “notability” criteria. Editors have to work to prove their subject’s worth, which usually comes in the form of peer-reviewed papers, accolades, and media coverage—all areas in which women and minorities are similarly underrepresented.* That lack of visibility is amplified when trying to create pages for historical women and minorities in science, whose contributions were erased or ignored.

But we do have a chance to rectify the oversights of history and make sure that we’re actively incorporating the achievements of women and minorities by rallying our communities to edit Wikipedia. Women and allies have been working to bridge that gap at the grassroots level, convening edit-a-thons, or meetups for Wikipedia editors of all levels—from novice to expert. These edit-a-thons not only work to increase representation, but also build community, while educating attendees on the achievements of those who would otherwise be written out of the narratives of their fields.

Last month, 500 Women Scientists hosted an edit-a-thon as part of Caveat NYC’s Underground Science Festival—a week-long event dedicated to unearthing the science buried by sexism and racism. During the course of the edit-a-thon, our group created new pages for Frances Colón, Lynn Riddiford, and Thandiwe Mweetwa and made edits to several existing pages, like those of Ursula Franklin, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Yajaira Sierra Sastre. Overall, we edited 81 articles that have since been viewed 432,000 times.

The biology table at the edit-a-thon

Building on Wikipedia’s guide on how to run an effective edit-a-thon, here are some tips to consider as you plan your own event to increase visibility of scientists from underrepresented backgrounds.

  • Tap into the local Wikimedia network. Wikipedia is run by dedicated volunteers who feel passionately about democratizing access to information. You can find a Wikimedia chapter near you and reach out in advance for support. Editing can be intimidating at first, so experienced Wikipedians are a valuable asset to lead you through the process. Megan Wacha facilitated our edit-a-thon in New York and her expertise and guidance to “be bold!” helped make our event a great success. If a Wikipedian isn’t in your area, you can work through this beginner’s guide as a group.
  • Be clear about your goals in advance. Make the problem and the need clear in the text of your event. Carry that goal with you during the planning stages—from where you advertise to factoring in accessibility when you choose a venue. Your goal will also attract an audience that is excited to tackle the challenge you’ve set out and foster an inclusive environment because they understand what to expect.
  • Prepare a list of pages to create. There are so many women and minorities who don’t yet have a Wikipedia page that it can be daunting to figure out where to start. Before our edit-a-thon, I crowdsourced a list of women who should have pages and filtered for those who I thought would meet the notability criteria. Creating a list is also a great way to get to learn about scientists you’d never heard of before!
  • Make your event interactive. Just because you’re in front of a computer doesn’t mean you have to be quiet in your own Wikipedia bubble. We organized ourselves into tables by different disciplines to facilitate conversations. We also had plenty of drinks and snacks to encourage breaks and get editors to share what they’d been working. At the end, we had everyone share what they had edited and what they had learned—from a new field of research to the fact that finding information on underrepresented minorities can be a challenge because of publishing or media bias.
  • Keep track. Wikimedia has launched a nifty Programs and Events dashboard, which allows you to keep track of the edits made over the course of your edit-a-thon and how much they’ve been viewed since. The tool is especially useful if you’re tracking impact to justify funding to continue hosting edit-a-thons in the future. If you use this tool, be sure to request the appropriate event coordinator privileges in advance and encourage attendees to register before your event begins.
  • It doesn’t have to end after the edit-a-thon! Making Wikipedia pages is a great activity to bring with you after the edit-a-thon. Personally, our edit-a-thon gave me the morale boost I needed to continue editing Wikipedia on my own. I’ve made it a goal to make a new Wikipedia page a week and have so far made pages for Mandë Holford, Raychelle Burks, Nina Papavasiliou, Kate Marvel, and 500 Women Scientists. I also follow the physicist Jess Wade on Twitter, who creates a new Wikipedia page nearly every day, for inspiration.

If you have questions about hosting your own edit-a-thon, feel free to get in touch with me at maryam.zaringhalam@gmail.com.

500 Women Scientists, along with other efforts like DiverseSources.org, are working to combat that by creating databases of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM who can be sourced as experts for the media. Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD, serves on the leadership team of 500 Women Scientists where she uses her expertise in science communication, policy, and advocacy to advance their mission of making science open, inclusive, and accessible.