There has been a big push recently to add biographies of women to Wikipedia, especially academics. However, academic biographies are difficult to write for Wikipedia because of the online encyclopedia’s reliance on particular types of secondary sources. In this post, I want to explore the challenges of writing about academics for Wikipedia.
Before I begin discussing how best to make biographies of academics “stick” on Wikipedia, I first want to consider whether or not it is in the best interest of these academics to have Wikipedia articles about them. I acknowledge that women in the academy need to be publicly recognized for they work that they do otherwise the historical memory of their contributions will be lost. Moreover, the visibility of women in a field encourages more women to join it. Thus, having such biographies is significant. However, the extent to which it is beneficial for these individual academics in their careers is debatable.
Wikipedia’s guidelines on the subject make it clear that pretty much any tenured or reputable academic can have an article (because they have had an impact on their field), but that does not mean that they would want to. To a large extent, academics have the ability to control how they appear on the web. For example, their colleges and universities create pages that summarize their work and their work itself appears on the web. These are the most important itms that an academic wants to highlight and often the top search results for an academic are under their control - university pages, their own pages and social media accounts, and their own scholarship. Unlike these sources, Wikipedia cannot be controlled by an academic. Unless they are scholars with indisputable importance, such as Carol W. Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn, or Gayatri Spivak, they can choose whether or not to have an article.
While it is understandable that we might want to increase the visibility of female academics, anyone writing the article of a professor must understand that they are increasing the chances that misinformation will creep into the circulating information about that professor. The most obvious problem is that students can vandalize the article, but this is much more easily corrected that other, subtler problems. For example, Wikipedia privileges information that is in vetted sources and oftentimes when faculty are involved in a political action there is a lot of reporting of that action. In some situations, there will be more sources about that faculty member as an activist than as a scholar and that imbalance will be reflected in the article and impossible to correct. (Even Blackburn’s article is currently only about her discovery of telomerase and a stem-cell controversy surrounding her membership on a presidential council on bioethics rather than about the entire scope of her career.) If you are writing a faculty member’s page, it is worth consulting them to see if they really want an article about themselves (again, unless they are so notable that they must have a page).
If a faculty member has consented to having an article, they should not write it themselves nor should someone closely connected with them write it. This is a crucial rule of Wikipedia. The conflict of interest policy ensures that people do not present their own image to the world but rather that information that is as objective as possible is assembled. If you are a close friend of the academic, think carefully about writing the article. Are you prepared to distance yourself enough from the person at hand to write about her dispassionately and possibly have anonymous internet authors attack your writing about the scholar or perhaps the scholar herself or even the entire field?
All Wikipedia articles are summaries of previously published information. Wikipedia is a tertiary source that summarizes secondary sources. In writing about academics, it can become difficult to achieve this goal because there are generally not a lot of sources that summarize an academic’s body of work or evaluate it. When it comes to a person’s personal or institutional history, the sources are even scarcer. So, what kinds of sources can be used?
Peer-reviewed sources. These demonstrate what others have written about the academic’s work.
Magazine and newspaper articles. These report on the academic’s life and public work. They can be campus newspapers or alumni magazines and often contain personal details that will help flesh out the person’s history.
Publications by academic organizations. Oftentimes, these professional organizations publish magazines or information that summarize the work of scholars.
Interviews that illustrate the scholar’s work. While technically considered a primary source, if you take only non-controversial details from these interviews, they are considered acceptable sources on Wikipedia.
Press releases from publishers and employers. While these are not the most reliable sources because they are not vetted, they can provide basic facts of employment. Do not use them for ideas such as “most brilliant book in the field”, however.
Pitfalls to avoid:
Avoid listing every work an academic has published. Wikipedia articles are not CVs. List only the most important works and make sure there is context for the academic’s work in the article so that a layperson can understand the scholar’s importance to the discipline of which they are a part.
Avoid making evaluative statements that cannot be supported. All information on Wikipedia must be cited to a source. While the scholar you are writing about may be famous within your discipline, chances are that the common person coming to Wikipedia has not heard of the person’s work, so be sure to support the statements you make about her work with citations to sources. Think of this as a way to disseminate scholarship.
Do not submit your biography through the “Articles for creation” wizard as the people reviewing them are besieged with work and unfamiliar with academic culture. Just be bold and create the article!
I look forward to reading lots of fascinating biographies of female academics in the coming days and weeks.