The sum of what? On gender, visibility, and Wikipedia


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I tallied how often women were cited in Wikipedia’s top math and literature pages. The results weren’t pretty.

Aiming to provide the “sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia is one of today’s most highly-trafficked websites. Of its content, Katherine Maher, CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation — the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia — writes: “We believe in ‘knowledge equity,’ which we define as the idea that diverse forms of knowledge should be recognized and respected.”

But does the encyclopedia live up to this vision, or is it playing a part in perpetuating and entrenching long-standing biases? The gender imbalances in both the editor population and the site’s biographies — both over 80 percent male — are well documented. But what of the backbone of the encyclopedia: the sources cited within its pages?

The linked citations that appear at the bottom of Wikipedia pages provide both verifiability to the page content and visibility to the sources themselves — potentially a lot of visibility. A 2010 study — which opens with the line “Want to stir up a room full of college faculty and librarians? Mention Wikipedia” — found that in a survey, 85 percent of college students reported browsing Wikipedia during the early stages of research projects, and more than half noted linked citations as a reason for turning to the site.

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