What a Deleted Profile Tells Us About Wikipedia’s Diversity Problem

Clarice Phelps may have been the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element. For Wikipedia, that wasn’t enough.

  • Only an estimated 18 percent of Wikipedia biographies are about women. African Americans are likely similarly underrepresented.

    Visual: DigitalVision via Getty

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You’ve probably never heard of Clarice Phelps. If you were curious, you might enter her name into Google. And, if you had done so anytime between September of last year and February of this year, you would likely have found her Wikipedia entry. The nuclear scientist is thought to be the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element; she was part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team that purified the radioactive sample of berkelium-249 from which the new element, tennessine, was created. But on February 11, 2019, in the middle of Black History Month and on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Phelps’s page was deleted. The optics, as they say, weren’t good.

The deletion came after a brief but intense dispute between Wikipedia contributors over whether Phelps met the site’s criteria for notability. Ordinarily, such editorial spats are considered a feature of the crowdsourced encyclopedia, not a bug. If one of the site’s hundreds of thousands of active contributors mistakenly or purposely adds incorrect information, the wisdom of the crowd will ensure that truth prevails.

But in the case of Phelps, the crowd made the wrong call, and the site’s rules facilitated that. The entire spectacle revealed just how much work remains to be done to address the systemic biases that disproportionately keep women and people of color out of Wikipedia’s pages.

Phelps’ entry was created last September by Jess Wade, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Imperial College London. As a side-project, Wade has been working to combat the underrepresentation of female scientists on Wikipedia. She tries to write one new biography per day, an endeavor that has brought her considerable media attention. So when a journalist writing a book about superheavy elements learned of Phelps’s contribution to the discovery of tennessine, he sent Wade a private message on Twitter, and she promptly created a Wikipedia entry.

Five months later, on February 1, 2019, Phelps’ biography was flagged by an anonymous Wikipedia user, who believed she wasn’t notable enough to deserve her own entry and that not enough had been written about her elsewhere. We don’t know much about that user beyond their IP address — which was associated with a few small tweaks to articles about lasers, TV shows, and baseball players, among other topics. The user doesn’t appear to have been a prolific site contributor.

No matter. Anyone can flag a Wikipedia page for any reason. They don’t need to reveal their identity or know anything about the content of the page they flag. The anonymity fuels trollish impulses.

Wikipedia contributors have several options when they encounter a flagged article. For instance, they may not do anything. The Wikipedia biography of James Andrew Harris has been flagged since April 2016 — the month of its creation — with the message “This article needs additional citations for verification.” Harris was the first African American man to contribute to the discovery of a new element. His Wikipedia page has six references and a few short sentences describing his contribution to the discovery of rutherfordium and dubnium, elements 104 and 105. Despite being flagged for years, Harris’ biography remains on the site.

A second option is to improve the article. Wade knew from the outset that Phelps’ entry would come under scrutiny for being light on details and references. Phelps had been name-checked in brief articles about the tennessine discovery on the ORNL website, but the articles didn’t provide many specifics about her role. And although most people would consider a national lab a trusted source for information, because ORNL is Phelps’s employer, Wikipedia does not count it as an independent source.

So when Wade first set out to write the profile, she put out a call on Twitter seeking more references. But she ran up against a common problem of writing about underserved populations on Wikipedia: Due to widespread forces of inequity, underserved populations receive less media attention and fewer accolades than their white, male peers and are therefore less likely to meet Wikipedia’s criteria for notability. This may be one reason that only an estimated 18 percent of biographies on Wikipedia are about women. The percentage of entries on African Americans is hard to determine, but likely subject to the same disparity.

Although Wade wasn’t able to flesh out Phelps’s biography as much as she liked, the entry was comparable to the pages of other male scientists. Nearly 80 percent of Wikipedia’s female biographies fall in the categories of “start” or “stub” articles — incomplete snippets of lives the site nonetheless tolerates.

So it came as a surprise when, on February 1, Wikipedia moderators bypassed the step of calling to improve Phelps’s page and instead went directly to recommending it for deletion.

The decision set off a heated debate. I copied the full discussion into a document; it fills 18 pages and runs more than 16,000 words. “Put up or shut up,” one contributor told multiple users in a bid to preserve the article. “Delete, as subject is not yet notable. … Wikipedia is not here to pursue social justice,” sniffed another contributor who wanted the page to come down. Although substantive points were raised by both sides, the tone of the debate was likely off-putting to all but the most dedicated Wikipedians.

Advocates scrambled to save the entry. Phelps’s page accumulated more than a dozen links to references documenting her scholarly contributions and work. But on February 11, little more than a week after it was first flagged, the page was removed.

Clarice Phelps is thought to be the first African American woman to help discover a chemical element. That apparently wasn’t important enough for her to be included in Wikipedia.

Visual: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Wikipedia acknowledges that systemic biases have led to the underrepresentation of women, minorities, and other demographic groups on its pages — and that the problem is particularly acute for biographies of living persons. The site’s own statistics suggest that women make up fewer than 15 percent of active contributors. The “average Wikipedian” is a technically inclined, English-speaking male from a majority-Christian developed nation.

Although it’s commendable that Wikipedia acknowledges its own biases, the site’s criteria for notability continue to devalue the achievements of people like Clarice Phelps. Fixing the representation problem will require radical changes to Wikipedia’s rules and user base.

Wikipedia could start by allowing more flexibility in its citation and sourcing criteria for notable figures from underrepresented groups. At the very least, it could protect those pages from anonymous flags — as it does for other potentially controversial pages — and grant the entries a grace period to address issues raised by a flag before being marked for deletion. It could also remove user anonymity, to help stem the impersonal nastiness seen in page debates and deletion wars — nastiness that likely discourages underrepresented groups from sticking around in the Wikipedia community.

Fortunately, readers interested in learning more about Clarice Phelps don’t need to wait for Wikipedia to get its act together. I spoke with Julie Ezold, a program manager who worked with Phelps on the tennessine project; Kit Chapman, the journalist who first brought Phelps to Jess Wade’s attention; and Phelps herself to tease out the details behind the scientist’s achievement.

It goes like this: In the fall of 2011, Phelps was part of a small team at ORNL charged with purifying samples of berkelium-249, a radioactive element so hard to obtain that it can only be made in two places in the world. After months of preliminary purifications, ORNL scientists handed Phelps and her coworkers Rose Boll and Shelley Van Cleve a bottle containing 27 milligrams of berkelium-249. Through expert manipulations inside radiation-proof glove boxes, Phelps, Boll, and Van Cleve removed from the sample any specks of impurity that could interfere with the reaction to make tennessine. They lost less than a milligram of material in the process.

The ultrapure berkelium-249 was shipped to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia, where it was bombarded with calcium ions to create the new chemical element. That experiment — a repeat of one conducted two years earlier — gave scientists the data they needed to confirm tennessine’s existence.

As far as we know, Phelps was the first African American woman to play such a pivotal role in introducing a new chemical element to the world. By recording Phelps achievements in Wikipedia, where they belong, maybe we’ll inspire more young girls to join her.

Claire Jarvis is a scientific and technical writer covering the interface of chemistry, biology and medicine. Her writing has appeared in Chemistry World and The Open Notebook. She can be found on Twitter (@StAndrewslynx).

See What Others Are Saying

19 comments / Join the Discussion

    In my limited capacity to comprehend her work I have the utmost respect for Clarice Phelps and I hope that those who are qualified to assess her achievements value her as a colleague accordingly. And, if for some bizarre misunderstanding or sequence of events someone sought my consent to them profiling her as a role-model as a woman of colour in the sciences, I’d enthusiastically grant it. I applaud Jess Wade for writing 270 wiki-entries profiling of female scientists, as did Jimmy Wales who gave her an honorable mention in the Wikimedian of the Year last year. But as noble and urgent her cause might be; that does not absolve her entries from the same rigor and review and out of 270, chances are a few will fall short. Even then I have no real qualm with Wade. While I disagree with her that the issue not notability but lack of sources, her response to the issue on twitter at least was measured.

    By saying that Phelps possibly being the first African American women to help discover a new element isn’t enough Wikipedia, suggesting the poor optics of the deletion coinciding with Black History Month and International Day of Women and Girls in Science, comparing this case with that of James Andrew Harris*, and insinuating that the objections were the result of trollish impulses, you clearly arguing there is something at the root of this other than legit concerns about notability.

    The draft entry is not clear on what Phelps contributed to the discovery of tennessine, neither was her bio on the ORNL website. The most exhaustive resource I could find on the ORNL’s part in the discovery was this pdf (see link), which for some reason fails to mention both a Clarice Phelps and a Clarice Salone. I don’t know how many people at ORNL were involved in producing “22 milligrams of Bk-249 with impurities of less than one part in 107” and sending it to the JINR, or why Phelps’ name is absent from the brochure, but what I do know is that, of all the team members named, only one other has a Wikipedia entry. It’s not James B. Roberto or Krzysztof P. Rykaczewski, who appear to have led the team, but Julie Ezold, an entry also authored by Jess Wade. I can’t exclude the possibility that Phelps was the brains behind it all and that these men are just stealing her work similar to case of Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin, but were it not for the efforts of Jess Wade none of the team members would be noteworthy enough for a Wiki-entry, regardless of contribution. This is not to take anything away from the accomplishments of Phelps, Ezold, or denounce the efforts of Jess Wade. If I played a role in producing any amount of a transuranium element of any degree of purity which was instrumental in discovering a whole other element I’d be rather chuffed probably put it on my CV, but possibly the first African American woman is arguably a few qualifiers too many to warrant a Wikipedia entry with insufficient sources. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy of trollish anonymity, and if Wikipedia’s biggest problem is systemic bias surely there has to be a better example to speak volumes.

    The Entry for Tennessine does not mention Phelps. Of the names included in text two appear in blue. The first is Yuri Oganessian, the leading researcher in superheavy elements; the second is Dawn Shaughnessy, a radiochemist and principal investigator at LLNL who was also involved in the discovery of five super heavy elements with atomic numbers 114 to 118. (Her entry also authored by Jess Wade.)

    I have no problems with using Wikipedia as a vehicle to proactively to address historic and current underrepresentation and under appreciation of women and non-European figures in science. There is nothing necessarily wrong with having a motivation behind your contribution, but cutting corners or even demanding less stringent guidelines, as you suggest, undermines the integrity of what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. It is fine for inspiring more young girls to join Phelps being Wade’s priority, or yours. It can’t be that of wikipedia. If Clarice Phelps’ entry is reinstated she could be added to List of African-American women in STEM fields just after Hattie Scott Peterson, the first African American woman to gain a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.


    *Although I’m not sure how the comparison helps make your point. An article being flagged for sources isn’t all that strange, and flicking through old revisions of the page reveals a pretty ordinary editing history. I went to the entry “List of African-American women in STEM fields” and clicked on a few names; hardly a formal survey but I couldn’t find any evidence of a campaign to undermine African American entries.

    Isn’t it condescending to black women to put her biography in Wikipedia just because she is a black woman? It is reverse racism.
    Is there hard evidence that she is the first black woman in her field? Also, how is her achievement significant? Wikipedia does not even have a separate entry for the element she helped purify. It is just listed in a table as one of many isotopes of berkelium.

    The precise account of what Phelps did and what significance it holds for women and minorities, now varies depending on what piece you read. Who is responsible for that? Wade and Chapman. Private tweets? Unpublished books? It’s like nobody has the first clue how Wikipedia is supposed to work, those two people first and foremost. It’s not like it is difficult to understand either, it should be well within the capabilities of scientists and authors to understand why they have the rules they have, to understand which ones could be relaxed to account for systemic bias and which ones are absolutely non-negotiatiable if their already pretty widely discredited claim to be an encyclopedia is to hold water. There used to be some merit in letting suboptimal Wikipedia pages be “live” works while they are refined. Wade’s use of Twitter to instantly broadcast her creations, and a lazy and ignorant media which reads them uncritically, has put paid to that being a good idea.

    The Wikipedia rules for notability rely on the person being notable in the media which we know to be biased. The Wikipedia bias is a reflection of society outside of Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia has a whole page of rules (WP:PROF) which effectively lets scientists be considered worthy of inclusion in the encyclopedia based on their career achievements, without any requirement for coverage in the mainstream media, just the not unreasonable standard that the claims can be verified to be true. The problem is, not even that is considered acceptable by the activists such as Jess Wade, who are by their own admission seeking to abuse Wikipedia to gain publicity for these supposedly invisible people, ironically so they can then get covered by the media. The basically want Wikipedia to write about any scientist that is just doing science (some even not for that, some just for talking about other people doing science), if they are heroically doing it while hampered with the condition called women, or minority, or the really tragic cases where the sufferer has both conditions. They want to lower the bar, but instead of changing the rule that sets the bar, either for everyone or just for women or minorities (either approach would be reasonable, but only one addresses the bias of the wider world), they are trying to do it via the back door, by creating individual pages that don’t pass, then whipping up a stink on Twitter and in the blogosphere when Wikipedia does the only sensible thing it can do in that situation, and denies the entries.

    Some of these comments are so disappointing. These unabashed displays of willful ignorance show how far we have to go in the fields of STEM to receive proper acknowledgement for our achievements.

    Excellent article. This is exactly what bothers me about Wikipedia. What did the Wiki Police actually use as the fundamental basic reason for removal? Not an ‘amazing’ enough profile? A factual error that they can prove? They should restore the article and leave an invitation for more information if that is what they seek. By the way, a US Government Lab should be considered an authoritative source as can an independent or industry lab, especially for highly specialized technical areas. Would these same people quibble about NASA sources for articles on space probes, manned space developments, planetary information, or planetary rovers? I certainly would hope not, since that would be quite laughable.

    You have to be joking. Articles with no backing from a solid set of primary sources should not be published period. It’s not bias, it’s quality control and common sense.

    With a first line “Clarice Phelps may have been the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element.” you condemn an article. She is or she is not.

    Perfectly sensible qualification, given the acknowledged bias. We don’t yet know of another black woman that has been instrumental in the discovery of an element. That is not to say there are none, so may is the correct qualifier.

    Shouldn’t the criteria be for accuracy and honesty and not simply “notability”?

    Through the years, I’ve tried multiple times to contribute to Wikipedia. Every single time, my contribution has been erased for some wacko reason. Every. Single. Time. Apparently, the editors have software that combs through the site looking for changes and that enables them to perform a “bulk reverse” of changes that don’t meet their strange criteria.

    As an example of strange: I read a book that acknowledged in the author credits a debt to Rudyard Kipling’s _Kim_. Intrigued, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Kim and discovered that it had a list of other books that were also based on the character. I added the title I had just finished reading, and it was erased. When I questioned the editor, he said, “There’s no good reason to have a list of books in this entry.” However–the list predated my addition, AND he didn’t delete the whole list, just the title I’d added to it.

    Honestly, it’s surprising that anyone takes the time to contribute (beyond the wikipedians who patrol the site to eject interlopers).

    Unfortunately I had exactly the same experience. Some people are more equal then others on wikipedia.

    A fabulous person no doubt .Are you advocating for Rose Boll and Shelley Van Cleve to have articles as well?

    i think you’re making a big issue out of a discussion about appropriate contributions to a scientific discovery. Yes i am a woman scientist but i don’t see why this is in itself evidence of bias. now Rosalind Franklin is another story. why doesn’t Wade respond with information that makes a cogent case?

    Wikipedia has known history of bias. I mention this in connection with the topic of Indology. I have read that any addition alteration made by experts from Indian background took too long to appear. Whereas those from American experts(so called) appeared in much shorter time.

    Great read, thank you for highlighting this fabulous woman and wiki’s ignorance.

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