On October 2, 2018, in the pre-dawn hours in Ontario, Donna Strickland received a phone call that would change her life. It was Göran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, calling from Stockholm to inform her that she had won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.
About an hour later, Strickland’s big win was announced to the rest of the world, and the fanfare that ensued went far beyond the usual media blip: Strickland, an associate professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, was only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in the award’s history, and the first since 1963.
Along with the plaudits came voices of criticism for an award process that some believe has historically neglected women, and for a society that many feel does not do enough to foster the success of women in the sciences.
But a fascinating secondary story quickly emerged on both social and traditional media, in what The Atlantic called “a Metaphor for the Nobel Prize’s Record With Women.” As it turned out, Donna Strickland did not have her own Wikipedia article at the time of her award’s announcement, despite her many achievements in her field, and her stature as president emeritus of a leading academic society.
Even more gallingly, a Wikipedia editor had drafted an article about Strickland on March 28, 2018 – several months before she won the Nobel Prize – only for the draft submission to be summarily rejected by another Wikipedia editor.
To be sure, once word got out that Strickland was a new Nobel laureate, a Wikipedia article about her was created in a flash, and soon reached a respectable length and level of detail. But media outlets seized on Wikipedia’s initial exclusion of Strickland – despite her many accomplishments – until she won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The headlines were quick to condemn the website: “Wikipedia rejected an entry on a Nobel Prize winner because she wasn’t famous enough”; “The Nobel prize winning scientist who wasn’t famous enough for Wikipedia”; and “Female Nobel prize winner deemed not important enough for Wikipedia entry.”
But just how accurate were these accusations? Was Donna Strickland truly “not important enough for Wikipedia”? The answer is … not exactly.
To get to the heart of the matter, let’s put aside the thorny topic of gender and systemic biases on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and ask a more basic question: What does it take to get on Wikipedia? Just how famous does a person have to be to deserve an article on the world’s most widely read encyclopedia?
One of Wikipedia’s foundational principles is that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not an indiscriminate collection of information, so there needs to be some standard for a person (or any other topic, for that matter) to be judged suitable for inclusion.
The standard that the Wikipedia community implemented as the primary metric for inclusion is actually neither fame nor importance. It is notability. According to Wikipedia’s official notability policy, notable topics are “those that have gained sufficiently significant attention by the world at large and over a period of time.” Fame and importance (not to mention other factors like popularity, talent, and prestige) are deemed too subjective to meet Wikipedia’s inclusion criteria. Notability is where it’s at.
Part of why Wikipedia chose notability as the linchpin of its operation is that it can be demonstrated using references. Most Wikipedia articles must justify their inclusion by meeting the General Notability Guideline, or GNG. Sometimes called Wikipedia’s Golden Rule, the GNG states: “Articles generally require significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the topic.” Each part of this sentence represents a critical element of the GNG: “significant coverage” excludes trivial mentions; “reliable sources” excludes biased content and publications with poor editorial oversight; and “independent” excludes content produced by the article’s subject, such as a press release or an autobiography.
Despite Donna Strickland’s importance and stature in her field before she won the Nobel Prize, she clearly did not pass the GNG – there was simply no significant coverage of her or her work in news media or elsewhere! This is unfortunately more typical of important people from previous generations who simply did not appear sufficiently in sources that live online.
Critically, there are also several subject-specific notability guidelines, which serve as a kind of back door to grant inclusion to subjects that may not pass the GNG. For example, the notability guideline for academics dictates that an academic is notable if the person “is or has been an elected member of a highly selective and prestigious scholarly society or association.” In hindsight, many in the Wikipedia community argued that Donna Strickland should not have been rejected by Wikipedia even before winning the Nobel, despite the dearth of media coverage about her at the time, since she is a past president of The Optical Society.
But the fact remains that by Wikipedia’s formal standards – which value notability and media coverage over more subjective factors – Strickland’s case for inclusion was, at best, contentious. As Wikimedia Foundation President Katherine Maher wrote in the aftermath of the Strickland affair, “If journalists, book publishers, scientific researchers, curators, academics, grant-makers and prize-awarding committees don’t recognize the work of women, Wikipedia’s editors have little foundation on which to build.”
As we go forward into the future, our generation’s approach to appreciating women’s achievements will require some serious edits.