Why It Matters That U.S. and European Editors Dominate Wikipedia

Voices from the Global South are drowned out by perspectives from well-off nations.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Do you live in France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, or the United States? Congratulations—your nation dominates the worldview of Wikipedia users. Nearly half the editors of the online encyclopedia come from just those five (very wealthy) countries, according to the results of a three-year study from researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. There are fewer editors in all of Africa, the study found, than in the Netherlands, and North America has 100 times the editing power of sub-Saharan Africa.

The researchers looked at geotagged data, from when the platform launched in 2001 until 2013, on where Wikipedia editors lived. They also analyzed geotagged edits on more than 4 million articles, including 708,000 from Wikipedia in English. They found that when it comes to developing nations, “local voices rarely represent and define their own country,” according to a statement.

Although Wikipedia is “widely touted as one of the Web’s most open and most inclusive platforms, we see that low-income countries are represented far less than locations that are economically advantaged,” said Mark Graham, an Oxford professor and lead author of the study.

“Europe and North America, with already high levels of Internet access, have the loudest voices, and they largely define the worldview of even the smaller, less affluent countries rather than the people who live in them,” he added.

Whether an editor hails from a more well-off North American or European country might not appear to matter all that much if the person is writing about black holes or integral calculus. But as Graham pointed out in an email to TakePart, “not all facts are facts.” In other words, one’s opinions, formed by experience, influence which facts to include, and from which perspective a fact is a fact.

“If you ask a Swedish person, an Israeli, and a Palestinian whether Jerusalem should be listed, in the article about the city, as a capital of any country,” wrote Graham, “you might get three different answers: that it is not officially the capital of anywhere, that it is the capital of Israel, and that it is the capital of Palestine.”

“When we think of knowledge like this as socially constructed rather than as objective facts, then it starts to matter what perspectives editors bring to the table,” he continued.

The research team didn’t examine “in much detail,” wrote Graham, whether there are significant examples of racial or class bias, for example, in what editors from North America and Europe are including in entries about people, places, and issues in the Global South. But what surprised him most about the findings is what kinds of edits people from Africa, South America, and Asia are contributing.

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“I expected there to not be many articles about the Global South, and I expected there to not be many editors from the Global South, but what surprised me was that of the small number of edits from the South, a lot are about topics in the North,” Graham wrote.

Wikipedia has previously come under fire for being male-dominated—an estimated 90 percent of the editors are men. Events such as edit-a-thons designed to boost the number of women editors and flesh out entries on women scientists have helped somewhat.

Internet access is sometimes a challenge in parts of the Global South, which is generally less wealthy than countries north of the equator. Bringing people online isn’t the quick-fix solution to editors’ lack of geographic diversity.

“You need information to create information,” wrote Graham. “We need more books, articles, and resources from the Global South, and about the Global South. This, in turn, requires massive investment in education and the knowledge economy.”