How it is decided who is Wikipedia-worthy

Stay-at-home mum Siobhan Leachman is one of about 160 Kiwis helping decide which New Zealanders are Wiki-worthy.
Kevin StentStay-at-home mum Siobhan Leachman is one of about 160 Kiwis helping decide which New Zealanders are Wiki-worthy.

Yet there it is, already at the top of Google’s search results. Without that freshly minted Wikipedia entry, the best you’d have got when researching Beverley Holloway would have been an obscure scientific report about the New Zealand batfly or a passing media reference.

Now she’s memorialised in an international encyclopaedia, and all with one tap of Siobhan Leachman’s keyboard. Leachman’s not a historian or scientist – she’s a trained lawyer and stay-at-home mother of two.

Her new article wasn’t vetted to determine whether Holloway was important enough to be included. She simply found and referenced published sources, checked the subject met Wikipedia’s notability criteria and displayed to the world a biography that would traditionally have been agonised over by professional historians or biographers. 

“Do you feel the power? Oh God, yes. Yes, yes, yes,” Leachman says. “But the nice thing about it is it’s democratic power – anyone can have this. I’m not special.”

Wikipedian Mike Dickison helps at an Edit-for-Equity Wikipedia editing workshop.
SuppliedWikipedian Mike Dickison helps at an Edit-for-Equity Wikipedia editing workshop.

Which is why about 20 people have swapped a sunny spring evening for this Edit for Equity workshop – to be part of the extraordinary democratisation of knowledge that Wikipedia represents.

Science PhD student Georgia Carson ran from a lab to get here: “I think it’s important. Wikipedia affects what people choose to write about.”

ESOL teacher Victoria Quade wants to profile her mother, Helen Tippett, Australasia’s first female professor of architecture. She merited an obituary in both The Dominion Post and The Age in Melbourne but isn’t yet on Wikipedia.

Educator Kate Potter worked for the National Library’s He Tohu project, helping tell the stories of women who signed the suffrage petition. Ordinary women, she says, before correcting herself. “Although no-one is ordinary. Sometimes only two lines were ever written about this person. That in itself says a lot.”

Who we choose to memorialise in print, with honours, in dictionaries of biography, holds a mirror to what we value as a society, as well as to who is making those decisions. And it turns out democratised knowledge is an altogether imperfect beast.

When Canadian scientist Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for physics in October, she had no Wikipedia article. That was embarrassing, but not unique to female winners. The real uproar came when it emerged someone had earlier tried to create one, but it had been declined. 

Anyone can create a Wikipedia article, but it has to meet the criteria Wikipedians have crafted to determine whether someone is notable enough to merit inclusion. They vary by field, but include things like receiving significant coverage in independent published sources; winning a major award; making a historically enduring contribution to their field; being featured in a dictionary of national biography or being awarded an academic professorship.

If someone fails the grade, volunteer editors challenge the entry with blunt take-downs such as “No claim to notability. Professor doing what professors do”, for Kiwi professor of health Jackie Cumming. (Her article survived after she received positive media coverage). Or the dismissal of Wellington homeless identity Ben Hana, aka Blanket Man. “Why is this bum and a criminal on here?” challenged one editor. “This is an encyclopaedia, not a compendium of agreeable people,” another editor countered.

B-list names are dumped as “journeyman actor”. Political candidates get axed because they haven’t won anything. Even Paddles – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s former cat – was twice tagged for deletion, but survived the onslaught.

Strickland’s article was written by a first-time editor and submitted via an optional approval process for new volunteers. There’s ongoing dispute about whether she met the notability criteria pre-Nobel – the moderator says he declined it because of poor referencing. Irrespective, the furore fired debate about who decides – and how – whether someone is important enough to be memorialised.

Dame Claudia Orange, who edited the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, says to her being noteworthy means building and supporting institutions and communities over a long period.
Craig SimcoxDame Claudia Orange, who edited the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, says to her being noteworthy means building and supporting institutions and communities over a long period.

There’s nothing new about the agonising challenge of deciding who is noteworthy. The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) arguably kicked off the discussion, with its five volumes of 3000 Kiwis who made their mark before 1960.

Traditionally, dictionaries of biography were populated by bishops and politicians. Editor Dame Claudia Orange says the DNZB team wanted a broader cross-section, so they set up working parties representing all walks of life and all corners of the country.

“If you’re thinking of what makes people noteworthy, I think it’s the ability to be seen to contribute in some way; to build – in institutions or relationships or wherever they are; to support people. It’s that kind of consistency of commitment over a long period, and the resilience you need to keep it up.”

And perceptions of noteworthiness can change. Some artists or historians weren’t considered that important at the time, but influenced future generations. Some writers appeared in contemporary anthologies, but their influence didn’t endure. And then there are the thorny ethical questions: “What do you do with abortionists or those that promote family planning?”

Looking back, if  Orange could rewrite the entry for Governor George Grey, “we’d be much tougher on him”, in light of the Waitangi Tribunal research and understanding that had emerged since. “But once again, you’d have to stand back and see that person in the context of the time they operated in. It’s tricky and it makes the job hugely interesting.”

Orange helped choose the 25 new suffrage memorial entries, which have this year relaunched the online version of the DNZB. With 2000 to 4000 page views a day, it’s the most-visited New Zealand history site. Its entries reflect our understanding of ourselves as a people, she says.

Tim Shoebridge manages the dictionary project for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage: “The question of who should be in and who should be out is a vexed question, especially when you’re only doing 20 or 25 a year,” Shoebridge says.

To choose the 25 suffrage additions, he looked for obvious gaps – people who had won honours; world-renowned leaders in their field, such as writer Margaret Mahy and astronomer Beatrice Tinsley. But the panel of historians of women also brought names he’d never heard of – community identities Betty Wark and Agnes TuiSamoa.

“We are not just Who’s Who. ​We’re not there to specifically honour people. In a lot of ways some of the most interesting entries are people like [Catholic activist] Patricia Bartlett, who thought that homosexuals were evil. They tell you something about society which isn’t necessarily how we remember things today.”

And speaking of Who’s Who, that was an interesting window on murky decision-making processes. New Zealand’s original, official version was like the DNZB, but for living people. But the later, Alister Taylor-published editions were part of a suite of so-called “vanity books” that landed Taylor in court in Australia.

It emerged that those profiled in Taylor’s The Australian Roll of Honour were asked for biographical details – and hundreds of dollars – ostensibly for a copy of the as-yet-unpublished book. In some cases, the books never arrived.

There’s shades of that with Wikipedia, with suspicions some organisations are paying PR companies to create articles about them and their people. The same concern has been raised about our honours system, with the revelation  last month that Chinese millionaire Yikun Zhang was nominated by National as a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross alleged Zhang made a $100,000 donation to National. The Electoral Commission has no record of this. More about that later.

Wikipedia Mike Dickison says the online encyclopedia simply reflects the biases of society as a whole.
Kevin StentWikipedia Mike Dickison says the online encyclopedia simply reflects the biases of society as a whole.

Discussions about noteworthiness normally take place in secret. The public only sees the medal lists and dictionary entries that result. What’s fascinating about Wikipedia is that that process is laid bare.

The first article Leachman created was also the only one she’s had challenged. A stay-at-home mum, she was bored once her kids went to kindy, so volunteered to transcribe historical documents for America’s Smithsonian Institution.

The 47-year-old came across mentions of self-taught botanist and collector Charlotte Cortlandt Ellis, who had several species named in her honour. There was frustratingly little about her online, so Leachman created a Wikipedia bio article.

It was quickly tagged for deletion. “Simply being a skilled collector does not merit a bio alone, you must show her impact and significance,” the challenger said.

“I got really upset and I started arguing about her notability.”

Since 2014, Leachman has been creating or improving New Zealand Wikipedia articles, trawling science and arts blogs and honours lists for interesting people who haven’t yet been profiled. She’s also created an article for every endangered native moth.

“I volunteer – this is what I do. It’s my day job.” She spends at least two hours a day on Wiki projects, in front of TV –  editing the encyclopaedia, uploading photos to Wikicommons or editing Wikidata. She also helps at editathons like the Edit for Equity event. It’s an attempt to make New Zealand subjects more accessible, and redress society’s unconscious biases. 

“If you work hard enough – if you’re prepared to go to a library – it’s often not hard to get over the notability issue. It’s if you try to research just on the internet that you might have a problem … That’s why it’s important to get this on to the internet, so once it’s there it’s easy for other people to find.”

Set up in 2001, Wikipedia used to be editable only if you could write code, which meant editors were mostly tech-savvy men. Even now, with a desktop publisher-style editing system, 90 per cent of editors are male and only 17 per cent of biographical articles are of women. 

New Zealand does slightly better, says writer Anne Else. Our Wikipedia profiles are 21 per cent women, compared with 28 per cent women in the latest volume of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Dame Patsy Reddy had no Wikipedia entry before being appointed governor-general. 

“Nowadays, if things are not online, they tend not to exist,” Else says. “Women often say you can’t be what you don’t see.”

Wikipedian-at-large Mike Dickison, who is touring the country encouraging more people to become Wikipedia editors, says the encyclopaedia is open about its biases, which reflect the gender and interests of its creators. But it’s naive just to blame Wikipedia,  he points out. The encyclopaedia forbids original research, so everyone it profiles must have already been featured in reliable, verifiable public sources. Wikipedia entries simply reflect the bias of society as a whole.

Leachman is among about 160 New Zealand Wikipedians volunteering their time to improve Wiki coverage. Stuart Yeates is another.

The IT specialist says he has three jobs – his day job at Victoria University, looking after two kids and editing Wikipedia. Since 2004 he’s created more than 2000 articles and made more than 50,000 edits. He focuses on combating systemic biases, whether it’s ethnicity or gender. For the past year, he’s been writing Wikipedia profiles for every female professor in New Zealand. He figured there’d be a few dozen – there are about 400.

The project can produce perverse results: of the 2017 Royal Society honours list, all the women now have Wikipedia bios (created by Yeates), but all but one man remains unprofiled. But Yeates isn’t worried about skewing the world view, as the gender bias overall is so weighted in favour of men.

“I think of it as paving the internet with positive exemplars. This is the reflection of who we are, who we think we are, who we’re trying to become, and what we think our world is like.”

Although already prominent in business and the arts, Dame Patsy Reddy had no Wikipedia article before being appointed Governor-General.
ROSA WOODS/STUFFAlthough already prominent in business and the arts, Dame Patsy Reddy had no Wikipedia article before being appointed Governor-General.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls from a van. She’s made time to talk about the honours system, because she thinks it’s important.

Around 1000 New Zealanders a year get nominated for honours. Their life’s work is reduced to an 8-12 line biography. The Cabinet Committee weighs each person’s contribution, longevity of service and whether it’s local, regional, national or international, and approves up to 400 awards.

Ardern reads every citation – deciding who is venerated as a noteworthy Kiwi is one of the privileges of her job, she says.  She’s looking for a good spread across the regions and fields of expertise – business, arts, sport, community service. For her, it’s about recognising those going over and above what’s expected in their job or community. 

She likes to think Kiwis value those showing up consistently to coach local sports teams as much as the global-scale entrepreneur.

“Look at our last list – you have a dame who has worked in the  prostitutes’ collective next to a knight who has been prime minister.”

The National Party donation controversy has reignited calls for an independent system, headed by the governor-general. Ardern says that’s not something she’s considered, but she rejects the idea honours are politicised, or can be bought. She’s never been asked for an honour as a quid pro quo for favours or donations. The Labour Government honoured Bill English, and the previous National government honoured Helen Clark.

But as with Wikipedia they need more public input, in the form of nominations, to ensure wide representation.

“Not always would it be front of mind for you to nominate the person at your local sports club, who’s been there day in, day out, for 30 years, without question, just doing a role. Yet that’s exactly the kind of person we want to be acknowledged … I worry that those people get overlooked.”

Noteworthy doesn't necessarily mean likable - Dame Claudia would include Don Brash, despite wishing he would think harder, and talk less.
DAVID WHITE / STUFFNoteworthy doesn’t necessarily mean likable – Dame Claudia would include Don Brash, despite wishing he would think harder, and talk less.

So who would be honoured with Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entries, from the current crop? Dame Claudia Orange reckons Jacinda Ardern would be a definite and broadcaster Guyon Espiner might get a look-in for his stance on using Māori on RNZ’s Morning Report.

“Sometimes you want those that you don’t even particularly like and agree with,” Orange says. “Don Brash would probably fit into that category for me.”

Back at the editathon, Kate Potter is researching innovative early deaf educator Dorcas Mitchell. She’s not sure if she’s influential enough to pass the Wikipedia notability threshold, or if she can find enough published sources to support an article, but she’s keen to try.

“What I love is there’s this little gem of a story. There’s this woman doing something interesting and progressive, that kind of got obliterated. She is exactly the sort of person I want to give some prominence.”