What can SFF fandom do about the inherent bias of Wikipedia?

Well, that was an interesting experience. Last Friday I was alerted to the fact that my Wikipedia page had been flagged for deletion. Well, I say my page but one of the few things I know about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia is that the subject of a page is not allowed to actually edit it. Anyway, I clicked a few links and established that the argument for my deletion was that I was not notable, and had not created a notable body of work. There was apparently a dearth of evidence that I was in any way a notable person, and as such, I had no place on Wikipedia.

Somewhere between startled and baffled, I noted this on social media. Consequently, I have learned a whole lot more about the whys and wherefores of Wikipedia. First and foremost is their idiosyncratic definition of ‘notable.’ This means statements about a subject must be backed by citations, by which they means links to material elsewhere on the internet to prove that a person has not merely done stuff but other people have written about them doing it, to establish proof. Not all online material is acceptable however. Blogs are not. Amazon reviews are not. Goodreads pages are not. These things are all deemed too likely to be unreliable.

Given my work on issues around representation and diversity, one thing in particular immediately strikes me about such insistence. This desire for verification is wholly laudable. It is also indirectly and unintentionally discriminatory. The fact that this discrimination isn’t deliberate in no way excuses it.

When 60-70% of all review coverage, media mentions and other online material that provides these verifying citations goes to white western male authors, then women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors are always going to find it harder to provide ‘evidence’ and their pages will be much easier to challenge, given our consequent far greater reliance on our own blogs to publicize our activities and other special interest blogs and websites that won’t appear in a cursory search, looking for example at Google News reports.

It seems Wikipedia is aware of its systemic bias, as detailed in this article. Read this, and related pieces, and I imagine many of you will note, with the weary contempt of familiarity, the repeated insistence that it’s up to women themselves, and other under-represented groups to do all the hard work here. Though I haven’t found anything addressing the issue I raise above, explaining what we’re expected to do when sufficient acceptable citations simply do not exist, and those references that do exist are not deemed acceptable. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

On the plus side, I have learned that there are dedicated groups of female and other special-interest Wikipedians spending considerable time and effort updating and expanding pages, intent on correcting this bias. Mind you, I also learned their work is frequently challenged and even undone by other Wikipedians applying the all too prevalent and far too often white western male logic of ‘not of interest to me personally = not of interest to anyone’. And of course, such challenges can very easily be a thinly veiled cover for actively discriminatory behaviour. Having read the Wikipedia page on handling tendentious editing, I am not in the least reassured that this is in any way satisfactorily addressed.

So what do we do? Give up and leave Wikipedia to perpetuate its skewed world view, further erasing women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ authors?

How about no, we don’t?

A couple of constructive ideas emerged from last Friday’s conversations. The first was having panels at SF conventions where experienced Wikipedians could explain the idiosyncracies and intricacies of editing and updating to people like me who are, for example, unaware of the specific ways in which Wikipedia defines ‘notable’ and ‘citation’, and the vulnerability of certain groups to deletion and challenge.

The second suggestion was making a time slot and space available at conventions for Wikipedians and fans to get together to update and expand author and other SFFnal pages. That would definitely help out all those authors, not only women, writers of colour and LGBTQ+ folk, who don’t have personal assistants, web-elfs or other people who can routinely do this without being struck down as a biased source.

At least as importantly, informed and engaged fans are going to be able to find acceptable citations that a cursory websearch simply will not locate. My updated and now apparently acceptable page is a prime example of this. When I flagged up this issue last Friday, online pals rallied round and crucially, since they already knew all about the many things I’ve done over the years, they used specific and targeted searches to find Wikipedia-acceptable material to link to.

Get a bunch of like-minded fans together at a convention and I’ll bet that adding their knowledge together will prove extremely productive, as someone flags up a Best Of, or Recommended Reads list online that other folk are unaware of, just by way of one example.

How about we try this?

26 comments

  1. My friend is a wikimedian, working on that kind of thing around women’s groups in Scotland. I’ll see what she can do to help out, and what experience she can point to.

    1. Much appreciated, all input is most welcome. Over on FB, a specific Scottish issue has already been flagged – the lack of a page for Moniack Mhor. Apparently it’s been tried without success, for lack of those acceptable citations. Surely that must be fixable?!

  2. Refseek.com is an academic search engine which may be more useful than “mass market” search engines such as Google, for finding suitable citations.

  3. One amusing circularity here may be that mention in an SF convention publication or website may count as a suitable citation. If so it may be useful to make sure that those workshops publish their working as part of the conference proceedings.

  4. Does it help to know my page was deleted some years ago (*after* I’d been poached by Quercus to found Jo Fletcher Books); guess the 16 years at Gollancz, the World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, and all those by-lined years in Fleet Street were not considered verifiable . . . A friend tried to get it put back up, but the Powers That be never bothered responding to her . . .

    1. that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s not some rush of hurt feelings, it’s the sheer bemusement. Swiftly followed in my case at least by the realisation that ‘merit’ (however one might define it) is pretty much irrelevant here.

      So does that make Wikipedia irrelevant? Tempting… but unfortunately not, when so many people use it as a go-to resource without realising what skewed results they’re getting. It’s not that this stuff matters because we take it personally, but because of the wider implications.

      Still, the better that we collectively understand how the system works, the better we can legitimately work the system to improve things.

  5. A minor comment, “citations” does not mean “links to material elsewhere on the internet to prove that a person has not merely done stuff but other people have written about them doing it”, A citation does not have to be to the internet, citations can be to paper sources such as books or magazines.

    1. A fair point, with the caveat that there does seem to be quite some debate about the extent to which hard copy references can acceptably be cited, from what I am seeing.

      And of course, the same issues around bias apply to written sources as to online mentions, alas.

      1. Hard copy references are often discouraged by individual editors who want to be able to Google everything, but Wikipedia policy is quite clear, hard copy references from reputable publishers are allowed and encouraged.

      2. Indeed – a lot of the topics I write about (historical politics in Australia) are *only* available offline until our articles appear, and nobody’s ever challenged those – then again, probably precisely 4 people read them.

  6. For science fiction authors, the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction could be a useful citation: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/ Unfortunately it is not much help for those who write fantasy or horror!

    Searching for an author on Google Scholar rather than on plain vanilla Google gives ‘academic’ and ‘literary’ results. For instance, a search on your name brings up a Finnish University thesis about EU VAT and micro businesses and an article about the British Boom. https://scholar.google.co.uk/

    I am baffled that actual published BOOKS are not acceptable citations for an author!

    1. All very useful, thanks!

      Apparently the existence of an author’s books is potentially invalid as evidence of their literary standing (?!), because they might merely be self-published and of dubious quality… That’s prompted some lively discussion on Facebook!

      There are definitely aspects of Wikipedia logic that are strange and unlike our Earth logic. And outdated in the current book world.

    2. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), available in printg and online via a link through the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, has entries for a lot of fantasy authors, and a number of horror authors. We’ve not to be able to keep it up to date (the SFE is updated almost daily), but it might serve for longer established writers (established as the world if not Wikipedia understand the term).

  7. I’m on the board of a Wikipedia outreach organization called Wikimedia District of Columbia. There are similar groups all around the world. (You can find Wikimedia UK at https://wikimedia.org.uk/) Groups like ours regularly hold events for organizations who are interested in improving articles about their areas of focus, as well as regularly providing trainers and speakers for events. If any sf conventions are interested in having such events or speakers, your local outreach group will be glad to help.

  8. It’s the crossing of two worlds – what makes perfect sense in academia (and is good most of the time) does not work in all contexts. A couple of other contexts – imagine if you’re in sub-Saharan Africa where a lot of stuff that goes on just isn’t published in anything reference-worthy due to verbal traditions, widespread illiteracy and so on – that’s another form of systemic bias. Likewise, people who have been powerfully discriminated against by their society (e.g. LGBT, lower castes, political dissidents) so don’t publish in the conventional way to avoid legal or social sanction. Clearly these perspectives should not be omitted from an encyclopaedia aiming to be the sum of all human knowledge.

  9. For the argument to be complete, it should be noted that the deletion request was duly withdrawn about 24 hours after opening. As a Wikimedian who provided one of the earlier portraits to be included in this biography, I don’t deny that the deletion request strikes me as a bit too eager, but I don’t think that pushing the gender bias question further than necessary will do much good.

    1. It’s clearly stated that the deletion request was withdrawn, and crucially how that happened. Highlighting inherent gender and other systemic bias will surely remain necessary until it is corrected.

      1. I apologize, wasn’t reading carefully enough. However, how that happened is incidentally the way the biography should be built in the first place. The least frustrating way for the fandom to do justice to their favourite topics is keeping that in mind.

  10. That was interesting. Wikipedia is my go to source for quick answers. I vaguely knew about it’s culling and citation rules. I, unfortunately, don’t have the time or knowledge to contribute to Wikipedia. I’m a leech, sucking information out and adding nothing. On the bright side I know who you are. Despite what the Wikipedians claim, I noted you.

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