IU students boost presence of Hoosier women in STEM through Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

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Among those who participated in the Hoosier Women in STEM Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon were, from left: Ellie Kaverman, IU Bloomington student; Dina Kellams, director of university archives; Megan Henderson, IUPUI student; Alexandra Schrader-Dobris, IU Bloomington student; Sheldon Salo, IU Bloomington student; and Sarah Jacobi, office manager and administrative assistant for the IU Office of the Bicentennial. Photo courtesy of Sarah Jacobi

Do you ever read a Wikipedia page and wonder, "Who writes this stuff?"

Tens of thousands of pages about people, places and history magically appear at our fingertips, though the content is solely at the mercy of anonymous writers and editors all over the planet. Some subjects worthy of a page don't have one, while others that do may have incomplete and/or inaccurate information.

That's the curse of Wikipedia. But the beauty is, anyone can fix its imperfections.

In October at the Indiana State Library, students from IUPUI, IU Bloomington and IU Kokomo took part in a "Hoosier Women in STEM Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon." Part of the Indiana Humanities' Quantum Leap initiative, this was just as it sounds, with the goal of improving recognition of Hoosier women notable in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields.

At the end of the day, 42 people had contributed to make 870 edits to 99 articles, adding 35,000 total words to Wikipedia.

Julia Deros of IUPUI worked on the page of Elizabeth Smith Friedman, a Huntington native born in 1892 who was a pioneer in U.S. cryptography and is considered by many in the field to be the nation's first female cryptanalyst.

"I really liked learning about all of her work with the U.S. Navy, breaking smugglers' codes and her service in World War II," said Deros, a graduate student majoring in public history as well as library and information science.

"I was proud to be able to bring light to the contributions of women who came before me."

Research has shown that more than 80 percent of Wikipedia's contributors are men, which can explain some of the shortcomings in entries about women. Edit-a-Thons help close some of the gaps.

"Not that these men are sitting around thinking 'how we can exclude women,' but they tend to be interested in more male-dominated things," said Rebecca Shrum, an assistant professor of history and assistant director of the public history program in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. "There's been a real push to get more women editing."

The how-to of Wikipedia editing is easy to learn quickly; most pages have an "edit" button, for starters. But figuring out where to go from there takes deeper thought. At this Edit-a-Thon, organizers created folders for dozens of women. The participants selected folders and dug in, with the entire Indiana State Library at their fingertips for additional help.

"The participants were very excited about the women they researched," Shrum said. "A few stayed late, asking to take more folders. It felt like you were making an impact, because you were -- the changes happen immediately on Wikipedia."

Among the completely new entries created were for Suzanne Knoebel, part of the IU School of Medicine faculty and the first female president of the American College of Cardiology, and Beulah Wright Porter, an educator, physician and active participant in the African-American women's club movement in Indianapolis.

The IU Office of the Bicentennial will host its own Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons at later dates.