By Kate Lindsay and Liz McCarthy

On October 15th, the world celebrated Ada Lovelace Day, an international event to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Named after a woman widely believed to be the world’s first computer programmer, it was fitting that on this day female researchers, students and members of the general public gathered together at Oxford’s IT Services to make their mark on the scientific history.

However, rather than cracking code they were armed with reference materials and, most importantly, Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that contains in the region of 30 million articles in 287 languages — including over 4.3 million in the English Wikipedia. Articles are written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, all of which can be edited by anyone with access to the site. It is the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, ranking sixth globally among all websites. With over 365 million readers worldwide it is the first port of call for anyone interested in finding out about anything.

It’s obviously important that subjects are well covered, representative and non-biased — but this isn’t always the case. Women in STEM, until recently, have received poor coverage on Wikipedia, and articles on science topics tend to be more male-focused. Not perhaps surprising, given that recent surveys suggest as little as 15 percent of Wikipedia editors are women. But there’s a move to change that, and Ada Lovelace Day editathons across the world aim to tackle Wikpedia’s ‘women problem’ head-on, by adding and improving articles to ensure that women are included in history.

Opened by prominent astrophysicist and visiting professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the University’s Chief Information Officer Professor Anne Trefethen, Oxford’s editathon had just 3 hours to make a difference. Following some quick-start training by Dr Martin Poulter (St Anne’s, 1991), Jisc Wikimedian Ambassador, those who had volunteered their afternoon went on to put STEM women back into the online world of history. In total the contents of 15 articles were improved with 7 new articles created. Many featured Oxford alumnae, including:

  • Audrey Arnott (1901-1974), a medical illustrator at the University of Oxford Radcliffe Infirmary highly influential in her technique and credited with starting the Medical Artists’ Association of Great Britain from her home in Wolvercote in 1949.
  • Margaret Jennings (1904–1994), a British scientist who was part of the group at the University of Oxford under Howard Florey who worked on the clinical application of penicillin.
  • Professor Dame Louise Napier Johnson, DBE, FRS (1940 - 2012), a British biochemist and protein crystallographer. She was David Phillips Professor of Molecular Biophysics at the University of Oxford from 1990 to 2007, and later an emeritus professor.
  • Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald (1872- 1973) a British physiologist and clinical pathologist best known for her work on the physiology of respiration. She began to teach herself chemistry and biology from books, as well as attending classes at Oxford University between 1896 and 1899, even though women were not yet allowed to receive degrees.

The impact of efforts across the globe to improve the coverage of women in Wikipedia was substantial. Just one week ago 15 female Royal Society Fellows had no Wikipedia article. They did not exist in the resource that 365 million people access to discover the world. As a result of Ada Lovelace Day editathons, they now all do.

For a full list of this year's Ada Lovelace Day events, visit Kate Lindsay is manager for education enhancement at the University of Oxford IT Services. Liz McCarthy is communications and social media officer for the Bodleian Libraries and special collections librarian for the University of Reading– follow them on Twitter @McCarthy_Liz and @KTDigital.