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When we invited WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias to an interview, nine passionate Wikipedians answered our call and offered greater insight than our admittedly inadequate questions would have prompted. WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias aims to combat imbalanced coverage while encouraging neglected cultural perspectives and points of view, both in articles and in the larger Wikipedia community. As you'll see from the varied experiences and motivations of our nine respondents, the biases that the folks at WP CSB tackle run the full gamut of human characteristics and dispositions. The interview that follows unveils many of Wikipedia's greatest shortcomings, and we're glad to be guided through it all by Johnny Au, Kosboot, Uyvsdi, Figureskatingfan, Carptrash, Hildanknight, Sionk, Groupuscule, and Djembayz.
What motivated you to join WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias? What forms of bias do you encounter most often in Wikipedia's articles and community?
Johnny Au: There are many Wikipedia articles that read as if only one country exists (most often, the United States). I was motivated to add in examples from other countries.
Kosboot: I admire Sue Gardner greatly. For some years she has been talking about the lack of women and underrepresented editors and how the lack of their voices are limiting Wikipedia and threatens its long-term acceptance. This has begun to intersect with my work as a librarian as I see that more people are talking about how only certain people whose records are preserved create the image of history. Because I wanted to counteract that tendency and wanted to make "other" voices heard, I joined the group.
Uyvsdi: I come across Native American editors all the time; usually editing their own articles ;) or updating information about their tribes. I usually offer a welcome message. Native friends have requested that I work on certain articles, and I've helped friends from other tribes get their images uploaded to WikiMedia Commons.
Figureskatingfan: Ever since I started editing Wikipedia in 2007, I found myself drawn to articles that paralleled my interests, and found that they were severely under-served and were about topics that were seriously underrepresented. I found, for example, that articles about Maya Angelou were either in major disarray or were non-existent, and took it upon myself to do something about it. Shortly after bringing the article about Angelou's first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to FA, I discovered the project and began to learn about the gender gap here. Seven years later, six out of seven of Angelou's autobiographies are FAs, as is her bio article. I'm proud of this accomplishment, and for the small part I've played in countering the bias that caused the situation in the first place.
Carptrash: I believe that Wikipedia is largely edited by white, educated males, so perspectives from that group abound. I notice them when editing gender related articles, which I don't do so much anymore after being banned for (among things) suggesting that editors who were red linked were probably communists. Art articles frequently suffer from a male, western dominated POV too.
Hildanknight: I chanced upon the CSB WikiProject a few months into my editing career and, being from Singapore (often described as a microcosm of Asia), I realised I had found my calling. Naturally, geographical bias is my main concern, having noticed that coverage of Asian (especially Chinese and Muslim) topics is full of glaring omissions and many articles are even slanted negatively.
Sionk: I've stumbled across various initiatives of SarahStierch which have concurred with my own interests, for example I created the List of female architects as part of Womens History Month, and joined WikiProject Women artists because I find myself creating and improving several articles in this area. I guess I consider myself older and wiser, with a broader world view than the typical young male US-centric demographic.
Groupuscule: "Countering Systemic Bias" is a life mission—and necessary for anyone seeking truth in this world. Wikipedia's biases reflect those of its male, Western, computer-literate, academically-trained user base. These biases are reinforced by a somewhat elitist atmosphere which tends to be dismissive of alternative viewpoints. Contrast the vehement labelling of Ayurvedic medicine as a "pseudoscience" (also see "List of topics characterized as pseudoscience" and "Wikipedia:Fringe theories") with the praise for string theory ("many theoretical physicists believe ... a step towards the correct fundamental description of nature"). The accumulated wisdom of generations versus today's hot topic; centuries of evidence versus virtually none; yet the former is policed and the latter extolled.
Are some topics more prone to systemic bias? What can be done to reduce the impact of systemic bias in Wikipedia's articles?
Johnny Au: They generally vary. Often, general articles that have place-specific examples are prone to systemic bias. Adding in examples from other countries helps reduces the impact of systemic bias.
Kosboot: With all due respect, the question itself is an example of systemic bias because it makes the assumption that it's only articles that are in need of revision. Articles in the press about editing conflicts in Wikipedia have described such discussions as typical of the aggressive tactics that one finds in male-oriented sports. The way Wikipedians debate hot topics is one example where, frequently, those that are the most loudest get their way. From the very first day I became an editor (in 2006), I have always felt that Wikipedians take an excessively aggressive stance to what constitutes notability--the process itself shuts out underrepresented voices. Many Wikipedians are not willing to accept that notability might be defined in ways other than reference books and world-famous newspapers. But to accept the voice of other cultures (particularly Native Americans in the United States), one has to accept non-standard sources for notability. So it's not just individual (or a mass of) articles but the way in which many aspects of Wikipedia is conceived and executed inherently contain systemic bias.
Carptrash: Identify it (bias) and deal with it. Although the talk pages can be very contentious on occasion, mostly they work very well in allowing editors to sort stuff out. The chance to do that is one of the wonders of Wikipedia. I favor making editors register in order to edit because I feel that even in a very small way this makes them more accountable.
Sionk: There's a strong (and deeply annoying) tendency towards recentism, reporting minutiae about the latest pop celebrity or album, or sports results. I often come across an American bias, for example an underlying "He's American so he must be notable" default reaction in AfD discussions. How to reduce this, well, maybe it's impossible on an English laguage Wikipedia dominated by American male editors. Wikipedia seems to lurch from one reactive initiative to the next, for example when the ghettoization of women authors was raised in the national press.
Hildanknight: Perhaps you should ask, and we should discuss, which policies are more prone to systemic bias. One obvious example is the policy against open proxies, which hinders editors living in countries where such proxies are needed to circumvent government censorship. That the policy on the use of sources in languages other than English is also unclear may lead to uneven notability guidelines and unfair deletions. In addition, the policy that Wikipedia is not censored has been interpreted in a manner that deters participation by editors from more conservative Asian cultures. Policy pages should also be rewritten to be more understandable by contributors for whom English is a second language.
Figureskatingfan: As editors, we tend to edit articles about topics that interest us. I'm a woman, so I tend to be attracted to articles that are female-oriented: women authors, children's television and music. There are a preponderance of articles about sports, games, and military history on WP because there are more men that edit articles than women. The solution, for me, is to recruit more women to edit, because they'll naturally be drawn to more female-oriented articles. I also think we need to retain the women editors we already have. How to do that? I have no idea, and am glad that smarter people than me are trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you're a woman editor, work on articles that interest you, have fun with them, and you'll automatically help solve the bias and gender gap problem.
Geolocated images in Wikimedia Commons
What steps can editors take to reduce the influence of their own biases when creating new articles or expanding existing ones?
Johnny Au: Learn about the perspectives of other countries. Tell those who live in countries not represented to add them in.
Djembayz: There is a saying, "Nothing about us, without us." Adding perspectives, cites, and direct links to materials published by underrepresented groups enables Wikipedia readers to locate authentic information.
You may be surprised how much immigrants who live near you have to say about Wikipedia. Try asking them about coverage of their hometown, and what needs to be improved.
Kosboot: You have to continuously listen to opposing or differing views particularly those you may not agree with. Even though you think you may be an expert, you have to hear what other people say and think about how their point of view makes a contribution. Outside of purely editing, one should find ways to engage people from underrepresented groups so that they can contribute.
Groupuscule: Cosigning on all of the above... Listen! Ask for help! Go to the source. And try to always push your boundaries: think, wait a minute, does this topic apply outside of the traditional realm(s) that first occur to me?
Have you ever needed to discuss systemic bias with an editor who contributed in an unhelpful or disruptive way? What is the best way to approach these editors and help them become a productive part of the Wikipedia community?
Johnny Au: No. I often tell them about being in another person's shoes.
Kosboot: With the exception of a few issues about which I feel passionate, I generally try to avoid fights. I often find that even though I feel I have the better point of view, it is overruled in favor of other choices. The option of being in the other person's shoes (as Johnny Au says) is a beginning, but if often requires a lot more: finding the right kind of language where the other person will listen to you, or finding issues that the other person will accept. Needless to say, it is very exhausting procedure and I see many people abandon discussions rather than try to have their voices and points of view heard.
Carptrash: I must confess that this is a weak area in my editing skills, particularly when I feel another editor is pushing an agenda rather then, say, "wrong" facts.
Djembayz: Yes, and I find I need to avoid the temptation to read too much into things. For example, the statement "Turn the red links on the Gender Gap red list blue!" is not a US political campaign slogan. WP:AGF means accepting that awkwardness and misunderstandings are part of the process.
Sionk: I've recently come across bitter arguments about bias in sports articles, for example. I've tried to find a practical way to move the discussion forward. These discussions seem to quickly resort to personal name-calling, quite probably out of frustration and cynicism. There's nowhere I know of that can mediate in these type of disputes, because Wikipedia, its projects and arbitrators seem to have biases of their own.
Hildanknight: To me, a far greater challenge is dealing with established editors in good standing who are not aware of, or even refuse to acknowledge, the problem of systemic bias or their own biases. For example, editors who nominate many articles about poorly represented topics for deletion, when a quick search for sources (in the right languages) would have revealed obvious notability. Having realised there is little point in arguing with such editors, I now stick to working in my little corner.
Does WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias collaborate with any other projects? What can other WikiProjects do to combat systemic bias?
Johnny Au: Not much. Other WikiProjects can chip in and add in more prespectives.
Djembayz: One of our functions is being a central message board for all the other WikiProjects working to counter systemic bias. Sometimes these projects don't have enough visitors to respond quickly when an article is proposed for deletion, or to other concerns, such as editor conduct. This is when posting a notice at the WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias talk page can help locate interested editors.
Many of us work in other WikiProjects that create content about under-represented groups or topics, and check in with WP:CSB from time to time.
Hildanknight: Collaboration is needed to coordinate efforts to counter systemic bias, but there is hardly any. Other WikiProjects should conduct CSB drives. For example, WikiProject Films could compile a list of 100 historically significant movies from Asian countries, or WikiProject Schools could identify 50 highly notable special education schools, then aim to bring at least 10 of their articles to GA status within a year.
What are the most urgent needs of WikiProject Countering Systemic Bias?
Johnny Au: There needs to be more members, including those who update the open tasks there (often, I was the only one updating the open tasks for a few years), as well as more awareness of systemic bias. A new member can help by adding in a perspective from another country.
We need a way to prioritize articles important for countering systematic bias for editors with language and translation skills.
Kosboot: More members, yes. My wish would be a 6th pillar to Wikipedia's WP:FIVE, so that everyone would be aware of the tendency to create systemic bias. Awareness would be the first step to fixing it.
Sionk: It is such a widespread and general problem/topic as to appear insummountable to people. Creating specific initiatives (such as WikiProject Women artists for example) is a tangible way to move things forward. Are these related initiatives coordinated in any way?
Hildanknight: Reading the WikiProject talk page may give the impression that this WikiProject is a NATO (Singlish for "no action, talk only") that only exists for people to rant. That the explanation of systemic bias was moved to a subpage makes the main WikiProject page far less helpful. Of course, we want more editors to get involved in countering systemic bias, but the WikiProject already has four hundred members. To me, the most urgent need is meaningful communication between the four hundred members, to set concrete directions and goals that can be worked towards.
How can a new member help today?
Djembayz: Make some improvements on an article about a country you do not live in. Find some reliable information from another language Wikipedia, or from another country, that you can add to an article written in your own language. If you can contribute to the non-English Wikipedias using non-English language sources, this is a great way to improve balance, because these articles can be translated into other languages.
Uyvsdi: And Wikipedia:WikiProject Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Articles pertaining to Indigenous peoples south of the US border a woefully inadequate (with the exception of precontact Mesoamerican articles). My Spanish is subpar but it's easy to glean information from the Spanish-language and Portuguese-language Wikipedias using Google Translate.
Kosboot: There are so many biographical articles about men where we know that their wives were just as important a contribution to their work. An easy beginning task would be to amplify (perhaps eventually forking) such articles. Writing articles on those neglected is one way to begin sensitizing oneself to systemic bias. The United States has a huge population of Latin-American people: How come there are not more of them on Wikipedia? What can we do as a community to engage them? Answering those questions should keep everyone busy for a few years. ;)
Figureskatingfan: If you're a woman editor, edit articles about topics that interest you, even if they're not female-oriented, because you'll bring a much-needed different perspective. And stand up for yourself if you feel slighted because of your gender; never back down.
Next week, we'll fire some of your neurons. Until then, travel the synaptic highway in the archive.