September/October 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 7

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Three Years of the ASA Wikipedia Initiative

LiAnna Davis and Jami Mathewson, Wiki Education Foundation

Three years ago, American Sociological Association then-President Erik Olin Wright penned a column in Footnotes kicking off the ASA Wikipedia Initiative. “Since [Wikipedia] is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, he wrote, “it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good,” Wright called on his colleagues to improve Wikipedia’s sociology-related content and to participate in the Wikipedia Education Program, a project in which professors assign their students to edit Wikipedia pages as a class assignment.

The Wiki Education Foundation is the nonprofit organization that manages the Wikipedia Education Program in the United States and Canada. We have had the privilege of working with the professors using Wikipedia as a teaching tool in their classes. Since Wright called on his fellow sociologists to join the ASA Wikipedia Initiative, there has been a marked improvement in coverage of sociology topics on Wikipedia. We’ve had 34 sociology classes participate in our program, and students in those classes edited 967 unique articles. Sociology students all told have contributed 8.76 million bytes of content to Wikipedia.

Just how much content is 8.76 million bytes? It is about 1.9 million words. If you printed out the students’ contributions on traditional 8.5” by 11” double-spaced sheets, it would take 5,839 sheets or nearly 12 reams of paper. It’s the equivalent of nearly three and a half full copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

And not only are sociology students adding a lot of content to Wikipedia, they are adding high-quality information. We did an article quality study in spring 2012, which found that students improved Wikipedia an average of 88 percent. That means that the ASA Wikipedia Initiative is achieving its goal of improving the quantity and quality of information about sociology-related topics on Wikipedia.

Student Work

One of the best ways to see the impact of the ASA Wikipedia Initiative is to look at some student articles. In spring 2014, Julika Kaplan worked on the article about HIV/AIDS in Malawi in Anne Chao’s Human Development in Global and Local Communities course at Rice University. Before she started editing, the article was a stub—a short article that does not offer significant coverage of a topic—and the three paragraphs cited only one source.

Now, the article covers the history of the disease and its economic impact in Malawi, information about at-risk demographics, and the preventative steps that health services professionals are taking to reduce the spread of the disease. The 140 citations come from 17 reputable publications, and the article is now designated as a “Good Article,” an honor only attributed to a small fraction of articles on English Wikipedia. In the three months following Julika’s improvements, more than 6,500 readers have viewed the article, giving her the opportunity to share her expertise with thousands of people around the world.

Fixing Wikipedia’s Gender Gap

Of particular issue to sociologists is Wikipedia’s systemic biases. Wikipedia’s core editing volunteers (known as “Wikipedians”) are typically tech-savvy, white, college-educated Westerners—and 90 percent of them are male. How this plays out in Wikipedia articles is that topics of interest to that group, such as those in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and pop culture, are well developed; articles in topics in the humanities and social sciences are often underdeveloped because there isn’t as large of a group of Wikipedians working on them. The Wikipedia Education Program, in part because of the ASA Wikipedia Initiative, is one of the most successful programs existing on Wikipedia right now to tackle this systemic bias. Student survey results indicate that 70 percent of students participating in the Wikipedia Education Program through the ASA Wikipedia Initiative are women. More sociology classes participating will help us address the Wikipedia gender gap by adding more women editors who edit content about women and topics pertinent to women.

Sociology students’ topic choices clearly show how they are countering the systemic bias in Wikipedia. They have started articles such as “Abortion in Costa Rica,” “Birth control in Africa,” “Gender inequality in El Salvador,” “Maternity leave in the United States,” “Migrant sex work,” “Networked feminism,” “Pregnancy-associated malaria,” “Refugee women and children,” and “Women in the Arab Spring.” Other students have improved existing articles that are important to women to ensure readers get a more comprehensive and balanced view of the article’s topic. Alyssa Abacan in Diana Strassmann’s fall 2012 class at Rice University expanded the article on “infant mortality,” which receives at least 20,000 page views per month. Alyssa added information about methods various countries use to measure infant mortality as well as medical, environmental, and socio-economic factors that increase infant mortality. Since Alyssa’s expansion, which included adding 47 new sources, the page’s improvements have reached nearly 600,000 readers who would otherwise have gotten far less complete information about infant mortality.

Interested in Participating?

We’re actively looking for more sociology classes to participate in the ASA Wikipedia Initiative for the spring 2015 term and beyond because closing these content gaps and systemic biases is vital for creating a complete encyclopedia. In an upcoming issue of Footnotes, two professors will share their experiences using Wikipedia as a teaching tool in sociology classes, including their challenges and accomplishments. Another issue will feature an article describing the necessary steps for designing a successful Wikipedia assignment. We will also host a complementary 60-minute webinar on Friday, December 12th at 3pm EST. If you’re interested in planning your course before the start of the 2015 term, see ASA’s Wikipedia Initiative home page at, or get more information about implementing an assignment at


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