The Notability Blues

The Wikipedia rule that makes it harder to create entries about lesser-known but important women from history.

Margaret D. Foster in her lab, dropping a substance into a glass jar.
Chemist Margaret D. Foster at work.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by National Photo Company, restored by Adam Cuerden/Library of Congress.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.

Every Sunday at midnight United Kingdom time, a Wikipedia bot named RonBot #11 generates the latest version of the list. Past entries have included Adelaide Hamilton, the last surviving granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton; Aanchal Malhotra, an Indian author known for her work on oral history; and Kim-Joy Hewlett, a finalist on The Great British Bake Off.

The dynamic list includes 800 women whose draft Wikipedia pages were recently declined because they failed to meet the English encyclopedia’s notability policy for articles. In other words, based on the sources provided, these women were deemed not important enough to merit a Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia is committed to the notion of an encyclopedia, a written compendium of important human information—not a directory, a soapbox, a vanity press, or anything else the site has pledged not to be. As such, only those topics that rise to a certain level of “notability” or importance can have a Wikipedia entry. It’s a policy that makes sense but is difficult to apply in practice. Back in 2007, then Slate writer Timothy Noah chronicled the demise and eventual rescue of his own Wikipedia page; it appeared that the mere act of writing about it in the press had helped him meet the notability standard.

Now, as we approach the end of Women’s History Month, it’s worth considering whether rigid application of Wikipedia’s notability guideline contributes to the online encyclopedia’s notorious gender gap.

The English-language Wikipedia’s general notability guideline requires that a topic has “received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject.” Experienced Wikipedia editors evaluate entries using each individual word of that standard. With Adelaide Hamilton, for example, the stated issue was significant coverage. The declining editor noted that Adelaide’s genealogical records were not significant coverage because they consisted solely of informational data like date of birth and date of death. When Aanchal Malhotra’s draft page was deleted, the issue was independence. Many of the sources for her proposed Wikipedia page were written by Malhotra herself.

But not all article deletions are logically sound. Gender bias on Wikipedia received media attention in 2018 when Donna Strickland won a Nobel Prize in physics and, at the time of her award, did not have a Wikipedia page. The problem wasn’t lack of trying: Before the award, a Wikipedia contributor attempted to create a page for Strickland, but a separate editor declined the article because Strickland had not yet received significant coverage in reliable publications like major newspapers. In retrospect, this seems like a bad ruling. Even before she won the Nobel Prize, Strickland was widely considered a leader in her field.

I contacted Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight to discuss the overlap between Wikipedia’s notability policy and Women’s History Month. Stephenson-Goodknight co-founded the Women in Red movement back in 2015 to address the fact that only about 15 percent of the English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. That share has now increased to 17.76 percent. Stephenson-Goodknight described English Wikipedia’s notability policy as “a touchy subject.” The 2018 Gender Equity Report, which Stephenson-Goodknight co-facilitated on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation, found that “a dogmatic view” of the notability policy was a barrier to increased female participation.*

According to Stephenson-Goodknight, the notability policy presents roadblocks not only for contemporary women, like Strickland, but for their historical predecessors. Recall that Wikipedia’s general notability standard requires “significant coverage” in “reliable sources” (plural). But as the Gender Equity Report noted, “One of the biggest challenges is having people understand how [minimally] women are referenced in the past. Some people who nominate an article for deletion believe that an 18th-century woman needs multiple references to show notability.” When sources exist, the historical references are often short and melded with a woman’s husband’s accomplishments. To the untrained modern eye, these references might appear insignificant.

Even in cases where a historical woman seems notable per se, Wikipedia editors can challenge whether she should have an article. Margaret D. Foster (1895–1970) was an American chemist who worked on the United States Geological Survey and the Manhattan Project—both high-profile initiatives that suggest clear notability. But that didn’t stop an editor in 2017 from flagging Foster’s page for notability concerns and probable deletion. Presumably the editor felt Foster’s page contained too few supporting sources; at the time and in the current version, there are only three references, and one is a single paragraph in a textbook. But once again, the limited number of sources appears to be the product of historical circumstances rather than a failure on Foster’s part to make noteworthy contributions. And one of the references, a 1971 memorial of Foster’s life in the American Minerologist, is highly detailed and surprisingly moving.

Foster was what we might today consider a STEM professional, but the contemporary analogue for other historical women is less straightforward. There are currently 174 entries in the category of “clubwomen,” participants in the United States women’s club movement from the 1890s to the 1920s. During the Progressive era, being an activist was one of the only paths available to women to achieve a degree of notoriety. The most influential women of the times were often suffragettes, led children’s charities, or advocated against alcohol and domestic abuse. But Wikipedia articles about these clubwomen are highly susceptible to what’s referred to as “drive-by deletion” stemming from the argument that these women lack notability because of a lack of reliable sources. For example, speedy deletion was almost the result for Fanny Baker Ames (1840–1931), a philanthropist and women’s rights activist, until other editors piled on to add more content and rescue her article.

When the story broke last year about Donna Strickland not having a Wikipedia page, Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher encouraged journalists to provide more coverage of women so that volunteer Wikipedia editors can import that information to the site. But when it comes to historical figures, we cannot go back and change the source material to generate more coverage.

So should we throw out the notability standard altogether? No. If everybody and their cat had a Wikipedia page, the quality of information would be difficult to maintain over the long term.

A more reasonable approach is to adapt the notability standard to fit the historical circumstances. For example, if there is a historical woman who does not have multiple in-depth secondary sources about her, perhaps that subject may nevertheless be added to the encyclopedia based on other factors such as the quality of a single source or the ripple effect she had on others.

Modifying the language of Wikipedia’s notability guideline would require a formal request for comment and a high degree of consensus from the Wikipedia editing community in support of the proposal. Wikipedians have told me that changing the notability guideline is an unlikely outcome; the community typically favors consistency and stability in its content standards. But rather than changing the guideline itself, Wikipedians could instead choose to interpret the rule according to the context. Over time, the community has developed best practices for evaluating notability for different types of biographies—politicians and sports personalities, for example. Distributing new best practices for historical persons would not be such a fundamental change because it would be in line with the existing tradition of applying the standard based on the circumstances of the subject.

What’s interesting to me about this adaptable notability standard is how it intersects with concepts from the legal system. Judges who are sentencing criminal defendants often consider aggravating and mitigating factors. If the defendant has a prior record of past offenses or took advantage of a vulnerable victim, that might lead to a more serious sentence. A defendant who demonstrates remorse or lacks a prior record might receive a reduced sentence. The overall idea is that judges should consider the defendant’s circumstances and apply the law accordingly.

Obviously, deleting a person’s Wikipedia page does not have the same life-or-death stakes as a criminal sentence. But it does implicate similar notions of justice. And the court of knowledge, unlike law, is always in session.

Correction, March 26, 2019: This piece originally misstated Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight’s role in the 2018 Gender Equity Report. She co-facilitated it; she did not compile it.

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