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Systemic bias in Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a number of systemic biases, mostly deriving from the demographics of our participant base, the heavy bias towards online research, and the (generally commendable) tendency to "write what you know". Systemic bias is not to be confused with systematic bias. The latter just means "thoroughgoing bias". Systemic bias means that there are structural reasons why Wikipedia gives certain topics much better coverage than others.

As of this writing, Wikipedia is disproportionately white and male; disproportionately American; disproportionately written by people from white collar backgrounds. We do not think this is a result of a conspiracy — it is largely a result of self-selection — but it has effects not all of which are beneficial, and which need to be looked at and (in some cases) countered.

Wikipedia is biased toward over-inclusion of certain material pertaining to (for example) science fiction, contemporary youth culture, contemporary U.S. and UK culture in general, and anything already well covered in the English-language portion of the Internet. These excessive inclusions are relatively harmless: at worst, people look at some of these articles and say "this is silly, why is it in an encyclopedia?"

Of far greater (and more detrimental) consequence, these same biases lead to minimal or non-existent treatment of topics of great importance. One example is that, as of this writing, the Congo Civil War [eventually written about at Second Congo War], possibly the largest war since World War II has claimed over 3 million lives, but one would be hard pressed to learn much about it from Wikipedia. In fact, there is more information "on a fictional race of giants who appear to be trees."

An example list of poor treatment due to this bias would include (in no particular order):

  • Africa and the 'Third World' generally, in all of its aspects
  • Asia - particularly 'underdeveloped' countries
  • Female oriented/dominated subjects
  • Foreign literature (particularly writers whose work is unavailable or not widely available in English)
  • Non-white figures in the U.S., UK, etc.

Systemic biases are not easily addressed. We will need a variety of strategies. Among those are:

  • Identify existing structures that can help in promoting this effort — e.g. Collaboration of the week, the translation page, cleanup — or can serve as models: the Irish Wikipedians' notice board, WikiProject Philosophy, etc.
  • Create new structures to coordinate our efforts toward countering systematic bias.
  • Create an infrastructure for recruitment and support of contributors outside the present Wikipedia mainstream. For example, this could include active outreach to Historically black colleges and universities in the U.S. and to colleges and universities in various countries of the British Commonwealth. Edit: Now the Commonwealth of Nations.
  • Identify subject-matter areas and specific articles that have been neglected due to systemic bias and which ought to be written, added to, or otherwise improved.
  • Collaborate on producing such articles.

Wikipedia is an evolving project. While some of its biases — e.g. a preference for online sources — are probably inherent, others — generally the demographic ones — need not be. However, they will not be overcome by wishful thinking. We need to devote active effort to these matters, rather than keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

I believe that the most important of these correctives would be infrastructure for recruitment and support of contributors outside the present Wikipedia mainstream. I also think it is the one we are doing least to address. We need to deepen our understanding of why women and certain ethnic minorities in the English-speaking world do not find this project as appealing as white men and we need to work out what we can do about it. We need to work out how to successfully recruit contributors from a broader human base.

Joe Mabel (Jmabel)