Gang-gang: Wikipedia bombers plot to promote women in science
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Gang-gang: Wikipedia bombers plot to promote women in science

Twenty-five bombers, full of intent, descended upon the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science on Thursday. And yet, in spite of their attentions, the dear old building is still standing unscathed. Ducks, unruffled, continue to dabble in the dome's quaint moat. How can this be?

It's because the bombers (140 of them nationwide) taking part in Thursday's "wikibomb" (yes, we'd never heard the word before either) intended only to gently bomb Wikipedia into having more, bigger, better entries about Australian women scientists.

Editors work on the women in science wikibomb, watched by Australian Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes and secretary for public awareness and education Pauline Ladiges.

Editors work on the women in science wikibomb, watched by Australian Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes and secretary for public awareness and education Pauline Ladiges.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Each participant was an "editor" as well as a bomber, for everyone who ever writes or amends anything for Wikipedia is an unpaid, freelance, self-starting "editor".

Thursday's bomber/editors at the dome spent all day together (outside, through the windows, ducks splished and sploshed), each at her own laptop, after an initial how-to-wikibomb chat by Will Grant of the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.

Just in case there is a reader who has never heard of Wikipedia (he's probably in Yarralumla, where the 21st century is kept at bay), we prod him awake. We explain to him that Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia. Unlike the printed encyclopaedias of yesteryear, always written by scholars, Wikipedia is composed and added to by anyone and everyone who has the zeal to have a go at something.

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It is very popular and influential and is often the source of the only "research" most of today's mankind ever does into anything.

"If you're year 12 student," one of Thursday's organisers, the Australian Academy of Science's Bella Counihan, reflected, "then pretty well your first thing when you're doing schoolwork is to go into Google and then your second thing is to go into Wikipedia.

"Of course, it's sometimes a problem with Wikipedia pages that they're not fully accurate ... but hopefully the material we produce today is well cited [containing scholarly references] is easy to read and is accessible for everyone. That's the main goal."

One of Thursday's editor/bombers at the dome (all of them women and all interested in what Counihan called "gender in science issues") was molecular biologist and cancer researcher Suzanne Cory.

"What we have here today," she enlightened us as we looked at the roomful of women bombing away, "is what's called a wikibomb. I confess I'd never heard the word before.

"It's been spearheaded by the Australian Academy of Science as part of our determination to raise the profile of women in science in Australia. There are many women out there in science who are not well known and we want them to be better known.

"We want to encourage female students in school and in university to be interested in science [and want them to have female science role models]."

Women in science haven't been getting the Wikipedia attention they deserve, she diagnoses.

"Most Wikipedia editors are men and also women are less likely to put themselves forward in the public eye in general, and I guess that being on a Wikipedia page is now a part of that.

"And today's work is also about increasing the awareness of women that this [getting into Wikipedia] is an important part of the job of being a scientist; it's making sure you're known to be a scientist."

Lots of Thursday's editors were scientists but there was a rule that (so as to avoid any suspicion of narcissism) no one could write their own, autobiographical Wikipedia page. Instead, editors were writing pages for women scientists (either with us or gone to their Great Reward) they thought deserving of wikipediadom.

And so it came to pass on Thursday, with the freshly created wikipages cobbled together under the dome going straight, then and there, out into the accessible galaxy that is the world wide web, that some Australian women scientists were reported to the online world for the first time, their pages as fresh as just-picked lettuces.

Suddenly, for example, thanks to Thursday's bombings, the world is introduced to Emma Johnston, "Australian research fellow at the University of New South Wales, where she heads the Subtidal Ecology and Ecotoxicology Research Group. Emma is an eminent Australian female scientist who specialises in marine ecology ... focusing on the impact of human activities and the effects of pollutants on marine life. She performs most of her research in the field, which is often Sydney Harbour ..."

There is wealth of information about her, including that "amongst her significant research findings is the surprising discovery that crocodile blood has antibacterial qualities".

Lots of Wikipedia's pages are written by enthusiasts for their subject, and Johnston's wikibiographer, calling the professor "Emma" throughout, enthuses that "Emma is an excellent communicator and a wonderful role model for young women and men in science, both in this country and abroad".

And if lots of the Wikipedia pages composed under the dome on Thursday have this kind of sunniness about them, it may be that the ambience of the workplace was helpful in this.

We have never watched a wikibombing before but at this one the editors chatted and laughed together as they worked, occasionally fortifying themselves from bowls of chocolate-coated peanuts provided by the academy.

When they did look up from their work they saw nearby beautiful New Acton, posed under a bluebell-blue sky, while in the foreground and dabbling in the moat they saw charming examples of what Wikipedia informs is "the Australian wood duck, maned duck or maned goose (Chenonetta jubata) ... a dabbling duck found throughout much of Australia".