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Analyzing Gender Imbalance in Wikipedia

Professor Hannah Brückner is using her experience studying gender and sexual inequality to investigate a relatively new technological phenomenon and field of knowledge — Wikipedia.

Chances are you've used Wikipedia before. The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is one of the most popular resources on the web. At last count, the English-language Wikipedia contained a mind-boggling 4,415,919 articles. The site's linguistic breadth is impressive, too. Pages are written in more than 280 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. There are even nearly 200,000 articles written in Esperanto, the world's most popular "constructed" language.

As Wikipedia has become the de facto Web reference, Brückner thinks it's important to ask: How does gender influence the creation of Wikipedia pages? Specifically, she is interested in the way gender bias affects the development of pages for American academics in the fields of computer science, history, and sociology, disciplines that vary in their gender composition. Brückner, who is Associate Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at NYUAD, is working jointly with Yale University Professor Julia Adams, and their project — "Collaborative Research: Wikipedia and the Democratization of Academic Knowledge" — is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Unlike a traditional encyclopedia that is produced by a team of professional writers and editors, Wikipedia is the product of many volunteers. New entries are proposed by members of the Wikipedia community; administrators have the option to challenge a page if the page doesn't meet certain criteria. If the argument for the page's existence is deemed insufficient, the page is deleted. This system may offer great opportunity for the democratization of knowledge. But it also presents risks.

For instance, 80 percent of academics listed on the Wikipedia page American Sociologists are male, while in reality less than 60 percent of American sociologists are male. "It could be that male sociologists are simply better scholars and are more deserving of Wikipedia pages than are female sociologists," Brückner says with a wry smile. "Or it could be that there is a systematic misrepresentation of female academics on the site."

Brückner's team will start their investigation by utilizing the site's own guidelines. According to Wikipedia, in order for an academic to have a page, that academic must pass "the professor test." That is, the scholar must hold a named chair, or be the editor of a top journal, or have "made substantial impact outside academia in their academic capacity," for example.

The researchers will use "the professor test" to create a list of academics in each field who are "at risk" to have a Wikipedia page. "We will have a list of people who our model predicts should have a page on Wikipedia and don't, and also a list of people who our model predicts should not have a page on Wikipedia but do," Brückner explained.

Further, by utilizing Wikipedia's application programing interface (API), which can provide vast amounts of data about the editorial history of every article, Brückner and her team will analyze article content, length, revision history, and the number of editors who have been involved in the maintenance of articles. They will also analyze the way each article is integrated into the fabric of Wikipedia, by examining the links that connect an article to the rest of the site.

Once this phase of research is complete, other avenues for further inquiry will open. Brückner also mentioned how she is fascinated by the way policies and processes vary for Wikipedias in different languages: the German Wikipedia, for example, is more restrictive and has more quality-control policies than does the English-language Wikipedia.

This difference has pushed Brückner to think about future research projects: "Here at NYU Abu Dhabi there are many students who speak languages that I don't speak. I'd love to teach a research practicum in which I'd work with undergraduates to explore the question of how Wikipedia is produced in many different languages."

Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Lane Hartwell, from Wikipedia Commons. The image used here is a cropped version of the original.