Why we’re creating Wikipedia profiles for BAME scientists

How an ‘editathon’ can help black, Asian and minority ethnic scientists — and science as a whole, explains Nicola O’Reilly.

A few months ago, I received an open invitation from the Francis Crick Institute’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) network to join a ‘diversithon’. This was described as a Wikipedia ‘editathon’ aimed at creating and improving the entries of notable BAME scientists — and I was so excited to join in that I immediately signed up.

I brought along my enthusiasm, but had no knowledge of editing Wikipedia — and, I’m sad to say, no idea about whom I should write about. But maybe that was the point. The lack of visibility of BAME scientists emphasizes the fact that we all need to do our bit to change that.

I was also very keen to listen to guest speaker Jess Wade, a British physicist at Imperial College London who has done amazing work adding women scientists to Wikipedia at the phenomenal rate of around one per day. I was impressed by her campaign to get a copy of Angela Saini’s book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — which debunks accepted scientific ‘facts’ about women — into every state school in the United Kingdom.

The event, which took place at the Crick in London in November 2018, opened with talks from Yolanda Ohene, a PhD student at University College London, and Sarah Essilfie-Quaye, a research project manager also at Imperial College London. They described their experiences as people of colour working in science. Ohene spoke about being the only woman with a BAME background in her classes, and Essilfie-Quaye shared an experience of being ignored when a room-booking clash led to problems.

At the Crick, I’m part of a team of senior scientists who run unconscious-bias awareness training for staff, which has made me much more aware of the hurdles that disadvantaged sections of society face. But the talks by Ohene and Essilfie-Quaye really highlighted the continuing negative experiences that people of colour encounter.

After a break and a chance to mingle with other would-be Wikimedians, it was time to go back to listen to Wade. She spoke about how creating Wikipedia articles about women and BAME scientists really can increase their visibility, and alter perceptions of who is and can be a scientist.

It was then the turn of Alice White, a digital editor at the Wellcome Collection in London, to get us started. The first step for those like me who had never edited Wikipedia was to create an editor account.

The next step was to decide who to add to Wikipedia. Thankfully, Wade, along with colleagues of mine at the Crick, had suggestions. We could investigate someone on the list, come up with our own ideas or add to an existing biography.

I chose Tumani Corrah, who has been conducting infectious-disease research in his home country, Gambia, for more than 30 years. I visited Gambia last year to promote Crick African Network training fellowships to potential applicants, so it seemed a great fit. As we each investigated the background of our chosen scientist, we became inspired by their achievements.

White guided us through the technical aspects of creating an article by introducing us to the ‘sandbox’ as a place in which to write text that is saved but not immediately published. After choosing the sandbox option and commencing the editing process, we simply had to ‘insert a paragraph’ and start typing. White advised that, to save time laying out the web page appropriately, we copy and paste an existing page with a similar outline to the ones we wanted to make, and edit the text from there.

Once this framework is in place, editing and adding citations is remarkably straightforward. We were advised that images add substantially to biographies, and that it’s important that they have the correct permissions. I asked the organization that Corrah works for (the Africa Research Excellence Fund) to upload a profile photo to WikiCommons, which they did.

After an hour or so, my skills at citing references and looking for evidence of achievement had improved considerably, and I was carried on a wave of energy and purpose by seeing my fellow novice editors making progress. I selected ‘Submit for publication’ to have my article reviewed by an experienced editor.

A week or so after the diversithon, my article was published — a proud moment indeed. Since the event, it has been a pleasure to see the pages written by other participants being published. To write one entry might be only a small thing, but lots of small actions by many people can make a big difference. I’m a novice Wikipedia editor, but I’m doing my bit, too. In response to Jess Wade’s New Year call to action, I have decided to write one Wikipedia entry a month in 2019 for under-represented groups. Helen Walden, a structural biologist at the University of Glasgow, UK, was my January entry, and Victoria Cowling, a cell biologist at the University of Dundee, UK, was my February offering. Watch this space in the months ahead.

Joining the diversithon also gave me several contacts whom I have approached for guidance and troubleshooting. And for anyone thinking of joining the Wikimedian tribe, by either hosting an editathon or starting editing by yourself, there is plenty of advice available on the web, including Wikipedia’s very own event guide and this handy editing manual from Art+Feminism.

First Published 07.03.19: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00812-8

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