The Wiki Watchkeepers

There is now an English Wikipedia page — agus as Gaelige — for me, courtesy of the considerable time, effort, patience, and diligence of Fangda Mei, who graduated from the University of Nottingham with a 1st class honours degree in Physics with Theoretical Physics (in 2018) and is currently an MSc student at the University of Cambridge.

Getting the Wiki page online turned out to involve a lot of work for Fangda and I wanted to thank him publicly — well, given the narrow reach of Symptoms, perhaps not that publicly — via this post. Thank you so very much, Fangda! I am extremely grateful for, and humbled by, your efforts.

Fangda had previous Wiki entries he’d written about me rejected on the grounds of my lack of notability. He cc-ed me on an e-mail he sent to another Wikipedian a few months ago to make me aware of this, and to let me know that he wasn’t giving up. (That was the first I knew of an English Wiki entry having been submitted for me. I should also note, particularly in relation to Wikipedia’s laudable conflict of interest guidelines, that at no time did I act as a tutor or supervisor for Fangda while they were a student at the University of Nottingham.)

Quite whether I’m notable enough for a Wiki page is a moot point at best. I definitely do not feel as if I deserve a Wiki page; certainly not when compared to others whose Wikipedia pages have similarly been repeatedly rejected (or even deleted) over the last few years. These, remarkably, include Dr. Donna Strickland, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 and Clarice Phelps, who helped discover a chemical element…

As Jess Wade and others pointed out in Chemistry World earlier this year, notability is a hotly contested issue in the Wikipedia community. There are, unsurprisingly, very few hard-and-fast rules as to how notability is defined by Wikipedia because it’s a very difficult-to-quantify, subjective metric. (Just how many citations, prizes, awards, papers, books, media appearances, invited lectures, community activities etc… etc... does it take to cross the threshold of notability…?)

This, of course, means that “notability” is not only very much in the eye of the beholder but that it can be misused as a basis for rejecting Wiki submissions that might not meet with a Wikipedian’s particular “entry requirements” including, at worst, those arising from conscious and/or unconscious biases. Shockingly, less than 18% of biographies on English Wikipedia are about women. And, according to New Statesman, only something like 8 – 16% of Wiki editors are female. 

Jess has done an incredible job of highlighting, and significantly helping to address, Wiki’s lack of diversity both with respect to gender and ethnicity. But as Jess and Maryam Zaringhalam have pointed out, we can all get involved:

Editing Wikipedia is easy, free and rewarding. It’s a thing to do with friends or your community, and might well fill out your CV. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection, a Wikipedia account and a bunch of neutral, reliable sources, along with a couple of hours to spare. Pick a biography you like from elsewhere in Wikipedia and copy the structure, using sections to separate education, research and awards. It’s important to check that the person you’re writing about meets the Wikipedia notability criteria for academics and that writing their biography isn’t a conflict of interest (so avoid writing bios for your family, friends or supervisors). Be bold, but not reckless. If you’re nervous, reach out to other editors in the community.

I’ve not contributed an article to Wikipedia myself. This will change. I’ll also be highlighting the Wikipedia “notability” controversy to this year’s Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics class and asking for their opinions and suggestions.