Women and Wikipedia Editathon, Swansea

Photo shows a group of young women and men sitting at computers editing Wikipedia
Editathon attendees using their new skills

This post was written by Prof. Deborah Youngs and Dr Sparky Booker of Swansea University

On Wednesday 28th January, 2015, Prof. Deborah Youngs and Dr Sparky Booker of Swansea University ran the first editathon in Wales organised to improve articles on women on Wikipedia. This day was focussed on reducing the gender gap on Wikipedia – both in terms of increasing content about medieval and early modern women, and getting more women involved as editors. Below, Deborah and Sparky report on the day.

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The idea for the event came out of a conversation with Robin Owain on how to raise the profile of Welsh women on Wikipedia. We had just begun a four-year research project on the history of women’s access to justice in Britain and Ireland, 1100-1750 (funded by the AHRC). Robin had seen us interviewed about the project on BBC Wales Today, and thought our research would be a good fit for a women’s history editathon.

We were interested in improving content about any notable women in history, but we focused on Welsh and Irish women because they are the subjects of our own research. Preparing for the day was an eye-opener, and we realised that many key women had no articles at all. We were surprised that Jane Dee, wife of the infamous Elizabethan natural philosopher, and Senana ferch Caradog, wife of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr, did not have their own entries, even though they were notable in their own right, and their husbands had well-developed, extensive articles written about them. On the other hand, it was very heartening to see how many well-referenced and extensive articles there were for some medieval Irish and Welsh women. Some articles, like that of Gormflaith ingen Murchada, were the products of other editathons, and some were the work of dedicated solo editors.

As it was the first time we had arranged such an event, we decided to start with the staff & students connected to our own College of Arts & Humanities at Swansea. We were soon joined by four researchers from Trinity College, Dublin, who were keen to update material on Irish women. They focussed on Alice Kyteler and Petronella de Meath, her servant, who were the first women to be tried for witchcraft in medieval Ireland (Alice escaped her sentence of death by fire; Petronella sadly did not). We also had remote interest from independent researchers in the US. We hadn’t been aware of how much scope there was for remote participation in the editathon, but in future events, this is definitely something to pursue, as the technology ensures that anyone, anywhere in the world can be part of the group and could take part in training and discussions as well as the editing itself.

The day in Swansea began with tea and coffee, and the group assembled. It was a mix of undergraduates, postgraduates, academic researchers, and librarians, most of whom did not have a Wikipedia account and had never edited before. We started the training off by signing people up and Robin from Wikimedia UK guided them through the basics of editing on Wikipedia. 14 new user accounts were created on the day in Swansea, and two in Dublin. Jason Evans, the recently employed Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Wales, and Marc Haynes, former Wikipedian in Residence at Coleg Cymraeg, also helped people get comfortable with the formatting.

Photo shows a desk with two people sat with an open book. There is a piece of paper upon which is written
Wikipedia, yay!

It wasn’t just formatting to learn however; there were also key guidelines for writing on Wikipedia that were quite different to how most of us editors usually wrote, since we are trained in academic writing. The policy on avoiding plagiarism and using proper citations made us right at home, but the importance of a neutral point of view, making sure not to make an argument in our articles, and the ‘no original research’ guideline were both less natural for many of us. However, the exercise of writing in this style, and making sure that our articles were written very clearly and simply in as factual a manner as possible, was a very enjoyable and we succeeded (we think!) in keeping our opinions out of it. Of course, even as we got used to encyclopaedic writing style, we also became accustomed to the very liberating thing about the Wikipedia format – that we can change the articles so easily as new information comes to light and as other editors in the community comment on it.

After completing our hour or so of training, it was time to get down to the actual editing. Our participating editors worked in groups and singly, on a variety of different women from Wales and Ireland from c.1000-1600. Some editors worked on subjects of their own personal research and others on suggested women that we identified before the editathon as crying out for their own new page or serious edits to their existing article. We had a line open to the Dublin team and Robin was able to troubleshoot their formatting queries. Over the day, as a group, we created six new pages, four in English, one in Welsh, and one in Greek. They can be viewed here.

The Greek and Welsh pages were particularly interesting, since we had realised with Robin that there was a great deal to be done adding content from English language articles to those in other languages (and vice versa). For those with adequate language skills, there is a chance to make a huge contribution using information that is already on Wikipedia.

We also made significant changes to a further ten pages, again, here under ‘major edits’.

We stayed editing until 5pm (with a short break for lunch!) and had a really enjoyable day. Our new editors reported that they found the training and editing interesting and fun and that many were interested in participating in more editathons in the future to keep working to close that Gender Gap.

And now that we have a core of enthusiastic editors, we know that while this was the first editathon in Swansea University, it won’t be the last. On the day itself there were discussions about where to go next. The university’s Athena Swan team voiced their interest in holding a large, university-wide event later this year to increase the number of articles on women from all areas of life. For us: we will continue to edit. We hope that our four-year project will bring to light fascinating, powerful women who deserve to be better known, and who will help our understanding of women’s access to law in times past. And when we do, Wikipedia will be one of the first to know.

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