Wikipedia’s Refusal to Profile a Black Female Scientist Shows Its Diversity Problem

The site’s moderators thought the achievements of Clarice Phelps—who helped discover a new element—weren’t “notable” enough for an article.

A woman uses a computer keyboard in Sydney.
A woman uses a computer keyboard in Sydney on June 23, 2011.
Reuters/Tim Wimborne

You’ve probably never heard of Clarice Phelps. If you were curious, you might enter her name into Google. And, if you had done so anytime between September of last year and February of this year, you would likely have found her Wikipedia entry. The nuclear scientist is thought to be the first black woman to help discover a chemical element; she was part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team that purified the radioactive sample of berkelium-249 from which the new element, tennessine, was created. But on Feb. 11, in the middle of Black History Month and on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Phelps’ page was deleted. The optics, as they say, weren’t good.

The deletion came after a brief but intense dispute between Wikipedia contributors over whether Phelps met the site’s criteria for notability. Ordinarily, such editorial spats are considered a feature of the crowdsourced encyclopedia, not a bug. If one of the site’s hundreds of thousands of active contributors mistakenly or purposely adds incorrect information, the wisdom of the crowd will ensure that truth prevails.

But in the case of Phelps, the crowd made the wrong call, and the site’s rules facilitated that. The entire spectacle revealed just how much work remains to be done to address the systemic biases that disproportionately keep women and people of color out of Wikipedia’s pages.

Phelps’ entry was created last September by Jess Wade, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Imperial College London. As a side project, Wade has been working to combat the underrepresentation of female scientists on Wikipedia. She tries to write one new biography per day, an endeavor that has brought her considerable media attention. So when a journalist writing a book about superheavy elements learned of Phelps’ contribution to the discovery of tennessine, he sent Wade a private message on Twitter, and she promptly created a Wikipedia entry.

Five months later, on Feb. 1, Phelps’ biography was flagged by an anonymous Wikipedia user, who believed she wasn’t notable enough to deserve her own entry and that not enough had been written about her elsewhere. We don’t know much about that user beyond their IP address, which was associated with a few small tweaks to articles about lasers, TV shows, and baseball players, among other topics. The user doesn’t appear to have been a prolific site contributor.

No matter. Anyone can flag a Wikipedia page for any reason. They don’t need to reveal their identities or know anything about the content of the page they flag. The anonymity fuels trollish impulses.

Wikipedia contributors have several options when they encounter a flagged article. For instance, they may not do anything. The Wikipedia biography of James Andrew Harris has been flagged since April 2016—the month of its creation—with the message “This article needs additional citations for verification.” Harris was the first black man to contribute to the discovery of a new element. His Wikipedia page has six references and a few short sentences describing his contribution to the discovery of rutherfordium and dubnium, elements 104 and 105, respectively Despite being flagged for years, Harris’ biography remains on the site.

A second option is to improve the article. Wade knew from the outset that Phelps’ entry would come under scrutiny for being light on details and references. Phelps had been name-checked in brief articles about the tennessine discovery on the ORNL website, but the articles didn’t provide many specifics about her role. And although most people would consider a national lab a trusted source of information, because ORNL is Phelps’ employer, Wikipedia does not count it as an independent source.

So when Wade first set out to write the profile, she put out a call on Twitter seeking more references. But she ran up against a common problem of writing about underserved populations on Wikipedia: Due to widespread forces of inequity, underserved populations receive less media attention and fewer accolades than their white, male peers and are therefore less likely to meet Wikipedia’s criteria for notability. This may be one reason that only an estimated 18 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. The percentage of entries on black Americans is hard to determine, but likely subject to the same disparity.

Although Wade wasn’t able to flesh out Phelps’ biography as much as she liked, the entry was comparable to the pages of other male scientists. Nearly 80 percent of Wikipedia’s female biographies fall in the categories of “start” or “stub” articles—incomplete snippets of lives the site nonetheless tolerates.

So it came as a surprise when, on Feb. 1, Wikipedia moderators bypassed the step of calling to improve Phelps’ page and instead went directly to recommending it for deletion.

The decision set off a heated debate. I copied the full discussion into a document; it fills 18 pages and runs more than 16,000 words. “Put up or shut up,” one contributor told multiple users in a bid to preserve the article. “Delete, as subject is not yet notable. … Wikipedia is not here to pursue social justice,” sniffed another contributor who wanted the page to come down. Although substantive points were raised by both sides, the tone of the debate was likely off-putting to all but the most dedicated Wikipedians.

Advocates scrambled to save the entry. Phelps’ page accumulated more than one dozen links to references documenting her scholarly contributions and work. But on Feb. 11, little more than a week after it was first flagged, the page was removed.

Wikipedia acknowledges that systemic biases have led to the underrepresentation of women, minorities, and other demographic groups on its pages—and that the problem is particularly acute for biographies of living persons. The site’s own statistics suggest that women make up fewer than 15 percent of active contributors. The “average Wikipedian” is a technically inclined, English-speaking male from a majority-Christian developed nation.

Although it’s commendable that Wikipedia acknowledges its own biases, the site’s criteria for notability continue to devalue the achievements of people like Clarice Phelps. Fixing the representation problem will require radical changes to Wikipedia’s rules and user base.

Wikipedia could start by allowing more flexibility in its citation and sourcing criteria for notable figures from underrepresented groups. At the very least, it could protect those pages from anonymous flags—as it does for other potentially controversial pages—and grant the entries a grace period to address issues raised by a flag before being marked for deletion. It could also remove user anonymity to help stem the impersonal nastiness seen in page debates and deletion wars—nastiness that likely discourages underrepresented groups from sticking around in the Wikipedia community.

Fortunately, readers interested in learning more about Clarice Phelps don’t need to wait for Wikipedia to get its act together. I spoke with Julie Ezold, a program manager who worked with Phelps on the tennessine project; Kit Chapman, the journalist who first brought Phelps to Jess Wade’s attention; and Phelps herself to tease out the details behind the scientist’s achievement.

It goes like this: In the fall of 2011, Phelps was part of a small team at ORNL charged with purifying samples of berkelium-249, a radioactive element so hard to obtain that it can only be made in two places in the world. After months of preliminary purifications, ORNL scientists handed Phelps and her co-workers Rose Boll and Shelley Van Cleve a bottle containing 27 milligrams of berkelium-249. Through expert manipulations inside radiation-proof glove boxes, Phelps, Boll, and Van Cleve removed from the sample any specks of impurity that could interfere with the reaction to make tennessine. They lost less than a milligram of material in the process.

The ultrapure berkelium-249 was shipped to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia, where it was bombarded with calcium ions to create the new chemical element. That experiment—a repeat of one conducted two years earlier—gave scientists the data they needed to confirm tennessine’s existence.

As far as we know, Phelps was the first black woman to play such a pivotal role in introducing a new chemical element to the world. By recording Phelps’ achievements in Wikipedia, where they belong, maybe we’ll inspire more young girls to join her.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.