Why It's Important To Have POC And Women Scientists On Wikipedia : Short Wave By day, Jess Wade is an experimental physicist at Imperial College London. But at night, she's a contributor to Wikipedia — where she writes entries about women and POC scientists. She chats with Emily Kwong about how Wikipedia can influence the direction of scientific research and why it's important to have entries about scientists from under-represented communities.

Here are the Wikipedia entries of the scientists mentioned in today's show: Sarah Gilbert, Kizzmekia Corbett, Gladys West, and of course, Jess Wade.

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One Page At A Time, Jess Wade Is Changing Wikipedia

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One Page At A Time, Jess Wade Is Changing Wikipedia

One Page At A Time, Jess Wade Is Changing Wikipedia

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.


Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with a story about the world's biggest encyclopedia and favorite Internet rabbit hole, Wikipedia, which, by the way, turns 20 this month.

JESS WADE: I was kind of a casual user of Wikipedia. I used it to cheat in pop quizzes or when I was doing a crossword.

KWONG: This is Jess Wade, an experimental physicist at Imperial College London. For years, her relationship to Wikipedia was a casual one.

WADE: I used it all the time, but I didn't ever contribute to it.

KWONG: Until she realized that this website, which is edited by millions of volunteers, sees 300 billion page views every day on average, has the power to influence the direction of scientific research.

WADE: So if a research topic or a particular kind of emerging interdisciplinary area is well written about and well documented on Wikipedia, that will grow and blossom. People will be attracted to and read that. You know, chemists who read pages about cool new chiral molecules will further develop those chiral molecules because they'll have read this kind of introduction.

We use it in classrooms. We use it in university lecture theatres. So it's kind of learning all of these things, like Wikipedia is very valuable and very important, and then learn about the kind of huge bias on the site. And obviously, this is a bias that we see reflected through a lot of society.

KWONG: A bias that affects who gets a Wikipedia page and who does not. See, by day, Jess studies materials, like organic semiconductors. But at night, she takes to Wikipedia and writes entries about women and POC scientists. Starting in January 2018, every day for three years, Jess has been populating Wikipedia with names and faces in science it didn't have before.

WADE: Because, unfortunately, whilst Wikipedia is amazing and incredible and extraordinarily important, the representation of people who aren't white male scientists is really, really bad.


KWONG: Today on the show, a project to give more women and POC scientists a place in history, one Wikipedia page at a time, and why that matters for the future of science itself.


KWONG: So today we're speaking with Jess Wade, an experimental physicist at Imperial College London. And every night for the past three years, Jess has written a Wikipedia entry about a woman or POC scientist. And if this sounds like a big commitment, that's because it is. But what motivates Jess to keep with it is the possibility of using Wikipedia to combat the bias in science.

WADE: We see it in who gets through peer review. We see it in who gets big papers cited. We see it in who gets big grants. We see it in who wins awards. And that means that the people that we celebrate and champion are incredibly homogeneous.

And when Wikipedia launched, the Internet was a very small space, and it was very dominated by particular types of people. It's kind of, you know, tech bro attitude that we still see in Silicon Valley and places like that - majority white, majority Western, a lot from North America, some from Western Europe. And those were the first people to start using and engaging and contributing to Wikipedia.

KWONG: In fact, according to a 2020 study, 87% of Wikimedia contributors are men. Wikimedia includes Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikiquote, a bunch of other platforms. And for Jess, this bias in authorship creates a bias in who gets a biography.

WADE: So this huge systematic bias against women, against people of color, against people from the global south, against people who are from any kind of particular marginalized group. So it's kind of two things - one, we have not a very diverse editorship, and two, the things they write about are not very diverse. And this is obviously impacted by the way that science celebrates people and who we talk about and who we define as notable.

KWONG: Right, right. Just to confirm, by now, you've written - what? - 900 articles for the site?

WADE: No. No, no, no.

KWONG: How many?

WADE: I've written 1,200.

KWONG: One thousand, two hundred.

WADE: What a result.

KWONG: (Laughter).

WADE: Sometimes I get a bit excited. So sometimes (laughter) - obviously, that's not 365 times three. So sometimes I get a little bit carried away. But in general, I try and stick to one a day, sometimes more.

KWONG: Really?

WADE: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I've been going for, you know, three years, so I've done a pretty good job.

KWONG: That - in those - we've thought a lot about how to ask you this question because 1,200 articles is an extraordinary accomplishment as far as contributing to this encyclopedia. And so the question we're going to go with is if you could build a quarantine bubble with some of the people that you've written about, living or deceased, who would you include and why?

WADE: Oh, that's such a good question. So for sure, I'd have to have some of the people developing vaccines in there.

KWONG: Fair.

WADE: The person who created the Oxford vaccine, which is the vaccine that's just been approved for use in the U.K., a viral vector vaccine, is a phenomenal professor called Sarah Gilbert. Sarah Gilbert has had this kind of fascinating career trajectory, working on the development of a whole bunch of different vaccines that can work on different coronaviruses.

And Kizzmekia Corbett - I don't know if you've come across her in any of your reporting. She's a young African American woman who is at the National Institute of Health and has worked on vaccines for SARS and MERS, so has this really great legacy, but also, alongside her kind of scientific research and, you know, extraordinary publication list, works to support people from underserved communities and wants to really amplify the voices of scientists who are too often overlooked, but also to support young people in getting into and enthusiastic about science.

So they're two people at kind of different ends of their career 'cause Kizzy is still very young, whereas Sarah Gilbert is a very established professor. But both of them have this kind of extraordinary pathway to really ultimately creating the thing that's going to save the entire world. So certainly, if I had a quarantine bubble, they would be in it. I think that - I mean, how many people am I allowed in my quarantine bubble because I could keep going?

KWONG: There's no official guidance, but the often-cited wisdom is less than 10.

WADE: OK (laughter). I'm so primed and ready to tell you stories about everyone. I'm so excited about them.


WADE: So mainly because I have been - she's someone who I wrote about right at the beginning of my Wikipedia journey, so a mathematician called Gladys West. She was born in Virginia in the 1930s, and she went to college. She went to a historically Black college and university to study maths.

KWONG: Yeah.

WADE: She goes off and becomes a teacher. She then eventually worked for the U.S. government, where she did the early computations and calculations for GPS. So for all of the technologies that almost everything that we do day to day relies on now - you know, you get in your car, you use your phone, you try and navigate to a particular location - you use the technology that Gladys West created.

And when I made Gladys West's page in 2018, it was really hard to find information about her because she'd worked for the U.S. government, so lots of things are redacted. And a couple of months after I put the page live, so after I'd finished writing it and put it onto Wikipedia, she was selected by the BBC as one of their top 100 Women. So she went into the kind of top 100 Women in the world for any invention or creation or contribution ever. And when you're on a webpage like that, when you're on a page that gets so much traffic and insight, people hop over to the Wikipedia page really quickly. So you could just see the numbers of page views of the Wikipedia page going up and up.


WADE: And actually, that meant that more and more people contributed to it, so it grew. Her story grew.

KWONG: How did that make you feel?

WADE: Oh, I just loved it. I was reflecting on this a lot with my parents over the lockdown - you know, why have I kept going, why I kept doing this. And I find nothing more rewarding, honestly, than seeing other people get recognized and championed for what they've done.

KWONG: Yeah.

WADE: So I would absolutely love to have her in my quarantine bubble. There's so many things that I want to ask.

KWONG: Yeah. And you're collecting, I suppose, historical information across different websites and books to write these biographies.

WADE: Yeah.

KWONG: Does it ever feel like time travel?

WADE: Yeah, it completely does feel like time travel. It's so interesting the things that I find kind of thrilling and exciting now. You feel such a kind of privilege and a rush to be able to get access to all of the resources that we can do now - you know, online libraries, online archive sites, archived magazines, scientific journals. These are extraordinary places that, you know, I turn to for this.

And there are times when you just feel, like, fantastic achievement. So obviously, in a lot of the world, when women get married, they take their partner's name. So sometimes it's quite difficult to find out early things about their lives if they've got married and all of their publications are in this new name. And when you find that one link, that one connection that tells you their maiden name and then you can go back and find their Ph.D. thesis or who was their examiner, you know, you find out all this extra level of information. So when I get to that, I'm like, jump off the sofa. I'm like, yes, this is great. And so, yeah, it's completely like a kind of portal into another world.

KWONG: Right. I mean, I have chills just listening to you talk about this kind of forensic reconstruction of people's lives and who they were outside of who they married or other kind of societal markers of that.

WADE: Yeah. A big part of it, I think, and a big part of my efforts and all the Wikipedians I've met, and certainly the people that we've trained the editors on (ph), is to not just make pages about women or make pages about people of color, but to make them as good as the comparable page would be about a white man.

KWONG: Yeah. Yeah, you have an amazing way of, like, connecting all these dots. I really appreciate hearing that. I want to ask you one last thing, which is I know that in a lot of ways, just talking to you, it sounds like this project is part of such a bigger desire to see science really include and be driven by all kinds of people. And what do you think it will really take to bring more women and POCs into science so that they stay?

WADE: Oh, such a good question and such a huge one. I mean, there are very preliminary, simple things, that low-hanging fruit, if you will...

KWONG: Sure.

WADE: ...That I don't know why we don't already have in place, like, you know, proper care and support for people who have caring responsibilities. So whether that's, you know, looking after elderly parents or sick parents. Or especially now in the pandemic, we're seeing the importance of access to child care and how that's going to influence women's scientific careers if they're having to work from home.

But I think more than that, we need to really look at our scientific institutions and ask really critical questions about why people are leaving. Why do we see so few Black professors? Why do we see so few women in positions of leadership? Why do LGBTQ+ scientists not feel comfortable being out when they're in the scientific workplace? And then really, you know, put money to it and take action to address those individual needs.

But I think from a kind of how you get more diverse people into science, I really honestly think the answer is improving our education systems and really support our teachers better. You know, pay them as well as we pay our bankers so that they stay and so that they create kind of inspiring science lessons that then go out and get this next generation to come in who keep pushing for this change that we want to see across all of the academy.

KWONG: Well, Jess, henceforth, I will refer to GPS not as Global Positioning System, but as the Gladys Positioning System, so thank you.

WADE: I greatly appreciate that.

KWONG: Thank you for that and, I mean, really bringing all these entries forward so that future generations can find them. It's really amazing what you're doing. And I really thank you so much for coming on the show.

WADE: I'm so honored to have come on. And I hope that everyone has a really, really great new year.


KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Ariela Zebede. And we have some exciting news for you. SHORT WAVE is returning to our regularly scheduled programming, dropping an episode on Wednesdays. That's right. Your Wednesdays will no longer be SHORT WAVE-less. Thank you, everyone, for your support over the last few months.


KWONG: I'm Emily Kwong, and thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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