Recently, Los Alamos scientist Mitzi Boswell stumbled into a pervasive information gap on the Wikipedia reference website. Her niece had called, seeking the name of a woman scientist she could write about for a school assignment. It turns out few articles featured female scientists on Wikipedia, making it hard to find one if you didn’t already have a name at hand.
Given the increasing public awareness of such research stars as Marie Curie (pioneering radiation researcher and two-time Nobel Prize winner) and Rosalind Franklin (chemist and X-ray crystallographer who enabled the understanding of DNA’s structure), how could this fabulous resource be so lacking in content on female scientists? It’s the same in the history books: Scores of female science stars have gone unnoticed for far too long. Boswell rallied the troops to take action.
First, Boswell told her niece about physicist Maria Goeppert Mayer, a woman who had direct ties to both the historic Project Y, which brought the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and Los Alamos National Laboratory itself. That solved her niece’s problem, but Boswell wanted to do more for the younger generation looking to “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” for rich and reliable information.
So, on June 17, at the lab’s first Wikipedia edit-a-thon, a group of lab employees gathered to create or edit biographies of Los Alamos female scientists on Wikipedia. Many of the employees were stepping into the Wikipedia “sandbox” for the first time. A sandbox is a personal space to work on potential Wikipedia contributions.
The event was organized by the lab’s Atomic Women Group, together with the lab’s Women’s Group and Women in Computing, to raise awareness and help increase representation of female scientists. The groups brought in guests Samantha Weald and Jami Mathewson of the Wiki Education Foundation to facilitate creating and editing biographies. They explained what their organization does to equip subject matter experts — including university students, scientists and scholars — to be successful Wikipedia editors.
And as it happens, Los Alamos is the first national lab that the Wiki Education Foundation representatives have visited as part of an initiative to activate scientists and scholars in a movement to ensure the public has access to reliable information, properly cited to academic sources. Other sites enlisted so far have been colleges and universities.
Mathewson pointed out that less than 20 percent of biographies on the English Wikipedia are about women. It’s the same problem that history books have faced forever. For the actual editing exercise, first, Wiki edit-a-thon participants picked from a list of many of the female Los Alamos scientists from the Manhattan Project to the present. Next, they were given published sources endorsed by subject matter experts as the basis of their Wikipedia articles.
It wasn’t a cut-and-paste exercise. Simply copying content from copyrighted sources onto Wikipedia isn’t allowed, even if you cite the source. Everything you contribute to Wikipedia has to be written in your own words, according to Wiki Education’s guide for editing Wikipedia.
Participants did additional research and summarized their findings to flesh out sections in a biography: an introductory lead, details on early life and education, career and research, select publications, awards and honors, and references. Then once a biography “stub,” or starting point, is published on Wikipedia, a frenzy of activity can happen — readers commenting on the content on Talk Pages, other Wikipedia editors adding content bit by bit so the piece grows over time, Wikipedia administrators removing articles that lack citations, and so on.
Ten Los Alamos women scientist biographies will go live on Wikipedia soon, ranging from physicists to chemists and explosives technicians, and the team hopes to coordinate another activity like this in the future to highlight remarkable Los Alamos female scientists and their extraordinary achievements.
So, getting back to that initial student phone call that triggered all this activity: Boswell, whose niece needed a scientist to profile, turned out to have been the perfect person to have contacted. Not only is she a scientist at Los Alamos, but she also serves on the American Physical Society Committee on Informing the Public, and she had been a lead organizer for a similar Wiki edit-a-thon held during a science meeting in Boston. This follow-up event will probably be the first of many, as dedicated members of the science community push the amazing stories of women in science out to a broader audience.
Olga Martin and Laura McClellan work at Los Alamos National Laboratory where they co-chair the Los Alamos National Laboratory Atomic Women Group.