10 years of tackling Wikipedia’s equity gaps

This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Student Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.

In 2018, Wiki Education launched a three year strategic plan whose three pillars are equity, quality, and reach. Equity, however, has long been one of the defining forces behind Wiki Education and the Wikipedia Student Program since its inception in 2010. Wikipedia aims to represent the sum total of human knowledge, but despite its more than 6 million articles, it still has a long way to go. This is especially true when it comes to topics that deal with historically underrepresented populations, such as women and minorities, as well as more academic subjects. With their access to information, often behind paywalls for the population at large, and with their instructors, experts in their subject-matter areas, to guide them, the program quickly realized that students can play a critical role in making Wikipedia a more equitable space.

Knowledge equity can be an elusive concept and difficult to define. At its core, though, lies two key pillars: knowledge should be accessible both in its creation as well as its dissemination. It means that knowledge should be accurate, representative, and inclusive to those who seek to create it as well as those who seek it out. While knowledge equity has been at the core of our programs since the beginning, it’s taken on new meaning and urgency in recent years with the rise of fake news and the ease with which misinformation is so readily spread.

Equity through participation

Knowledge is only as equitable as its creators and disseminators. Filling in content gaps and correcting the historical record is a critical part of knowledge equity, but who creates knowledge matters. This is especially true on Wikipedia, a site run by a volunteer base composed overwhelmingly of people who identify as white and male. We’ve known since the outset of the Student Program that roughly 60% of the students we support are women. This is representative of college campuses nationwide. Based on recent survey results, we also know that about 17% of our students identify as Asian, 13% as Hispanic/Latinx, and about 6% as African-American. Additionally, 45% of the students in our program speak another language other than English, and roughly 8% identify as having a disability.

While the makeup of the students in our program is fairly representative of college campuses nationwide, it deviates quite dramatically from Wikipedia’s active editing community. We also know that 19% of all new active editors to English Wikipedia come from the Student Program. While Wikipedia strives to promote a neutral point of view in all of its content, our students bring a diversity of perspectives and experiences that ultimately make Wikipedia a more inclusive, accessible, and equitable place. Whether it’s writing about a language they speak, the town they come from, or another topic near and dear to their heart, our students bring new voices to the Wikipedia editing community.

In recent years, we’ve also begun to collect demographic data on the instructors who participate in our program. Where our students are consistent with college campuses more broadly, our instructors deviate dramatically from academia as well as the Wikipedia editing community. More than 60% of the instructors who participate in our program are women, a number that is far higher than the 30% that make up academia. While most of our instructors do not contribute to Wikipedia directly, they are nevertheless important members of the Wikipedia community. They are using their expertise to guide their students and ensure that their areas of subject-matter expertise are accurately represented on Wikipedia. They too influence Wikipedia’s trajectory and diversify its base of knowledge creators. Whether these professors are focused on Women’s and Gender Studies, improving biographies of women, or plant biology, they are making Wikipedia more equitable.

Not content with content gaps

Whether they come to the Wikipedia assignment with knowledge equity in mind or not, all of our instructors and students participate in making Wikipedia more equitable. They do this through their very participation, but also in the content they produce. A content gap is just that, a gap in knowledge, but not all content gaps are created equally. Wikipedia has notable content gaps in subjects related to women, minorities, and other historically underrepresented populations. It also has significant gaps in more academic and obscure topics. The reasons for these gaps are complex. They arise in part due to who edits Wikipedia, but it also is the result of the fact that these subjects are often poorly sourced in the written record. To a large degree, Wikipedia reflects broader societal biases. Reflection, though, need not mean reinforcement. While this is often the case, Wikipedia can be a powerful tool for correcting those inequities in content. We know that Wikipedia is not a one way street. Information flows both into and out of Wikipedia. It is not simply a repository of information, but an agent of knowledge creation and dissemination.

Most notable among these content gaps is Wikipedia’s gender gap. Despite the fervent efforts of WikiProject: Women in Red, only slightly more than 18% of Wikipedia’s biographies are of women. Women are all too often written about as someone else’s wife or mother rather than for their own achievements. The same is true for other historically underrepresented populations.

To help scale our work in filling in these content gaps, we’ve formed several partnerships with academic organizations over the years. In 2014, we began our important work with the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) to tackle Wikipedia’s gender gap. In that time, we’ve worked with 405 courses whose roughly 8,600 students have added more than 6 million words on Wikipedia in the field of Women’s and Gender Studies. Because of our students, the world now has access to information ranging from Mental disorders and gender to Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, American cosmologist and activist.

Equity is as much about producing content as it is about having access to that content. It’s not just about correcting the record so that a female scientist gets proper recognition for her contribution to a field, but that other women seeking to establish themselves in that same field have a role model to which they can turn. Six million words is certainly a lot, but we’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to filling in these critical content gaps.

Equity as a skill

While knowledge equity has been a driving force in the Student Program since its inception, we’ve come to realize in recent years that tackling issues of equity is a skill to be learned, honed, and practiced. We know that there is a steep learning curve when it comes to contributing to Wikipedia. To shepherd our students through this sometimes complex and confusing process, we’ve developed a host of training materials to ensure that students can successfully make those first edits. But just as important as it is to learn how to cite work or add media is how to identify equity gaps on Wikipedia and remedy them.

Over the past year we’ve made a series of updates to our resources so that students and instructors are thinking about equity at every step in the process of learning how to contribute to Wikipedia. In fact, it’s our goal to make editing Wikipedia and tackling knowledge equity one and the same. Whether its asking students to think about how to critically evaluate a Wikipedia article, whether the sources they’re using come from a diverse array of authors, or whether their classmates addressed knowledge equity in their peer review, we want to make sure that students are able to identify bias and ultimately to correct it where possible.

We encourage students to think more deeply about Wikipedia through a series of discussion prompts, covering topics ranging from sources and plagiarism to content gaps to thinking about Wikipedia broadly speaking.

It’s long been our goal to help our students develop digital literacy skills, to enable them to discern reliable information from unreliable so that they can become full digital citizens of our modern media landscape. It’s now our twin goal that our students are also able to identify bias and knowledge inequities both on and off of Wikipedia and to correct those inequities where possible. It’s a skill that is undeniably difficult to measure and assess, but we’re highly encouraged by the fact that over 60% of instructors believe that the Wikipedia assignment achieves this very goal.

It’s no surprise that many of our instructors view the Wikipedia assignment as an act of social action. As one instructor put it: “It provides an opportunity for those who have access to reliable information to share it with those who do not have access. It also inspires people who are used to only writing transactionally to shift focus and write to support the common good as part of a community of writers.”

We know that our students will continue to play a critical role in making Wikipedia a more equitable space because knowledge equity does not have a finite finish line. It’s an ongoing endeavor of which we are truly proud to be apart.


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