A Beginner’s Guide to Wikipedia Editing & Edit-A-Thons

Today, there is an ongoing global quest to address the abysmal coverage of women and minority scientists on Wikipedia, inspired by the likes of Jess Wade, the Women In Red WikiProject and coordinated Edit-A-Thons across the world. While these efforts are successfully tackling Wikipedia’s gender and racial bias (such as the alarming statistic that only ~17. 7% of English Wikipedia’s biographies are about women), there is still a long way to go before the digital gender and racial gaps are bridged – which is where you come in!

Read on to learn more about Wikipedia editing, and how you too can take part in this form of science advocacy from the comfort of your own home (or at an Edit-A-Thon).

Personally, I first started editing Wikipedia last summer. Since then, I’ve edited and created multiple pages for individuals belonging to marginalized groups within science – including active scientists and those working in non-traditional careers. Usually, I’m most inspired to edit Wikipedia when I read a news article about an individual’s achievements but find that they don’t have a Wikipedia page. That’s when I roll up my sleeves, and I create their Wikipedia page to ensure others can learn about their trailblazing achievements, too. Beyond editing, I’ve also hosted three Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons across Ontario, Canada, to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to edit Wikipedia in their own leisure time from the comfort of their own homes. Overall, from my personal experience, I’ve seen that the hardest part of Wikipedia editing is not the editing per se, but simply knowing where to start.

In this Sister post, I won’t reiterate why you should edit Wikipedia (you should!) and how it’s a form of science advocacy, but instead guide you through Wikipedia basics: how to edit and create a page, and if you want to take it one step further – how to host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon.

The Basics

Before you start editing Wikipedia, here are a few things you should know.

The Five Pillars of Wikipedia

1) Wikipedia is an encyclopedia not a soapbox, news source or advertising platform. As much as I’d like to see a page for every undergraduate professor who inspired me, they may not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria – and that’s okay. Not everything belongs on Wikipedia.

2) Wikipedia’s content is free for use, which means that when editing the encyclopedia, take care to not plagiarize or violate copyright! Similar to any academic essay or report you’ve written in school or for work, be sure to paraphrase and cite your sources clearly.

3) Use a neutral point of view when making contributions to the encyclopedia. You should strive to provide a balanced coverage, and take care to cite reliable sources for your contributions.

4) Wikipedia is only possible due to its volunteer community. As with any virtual community, it’s easy to misinterpret someone’s words and assume hostility when it may simply be a misunderstanding. Always assume good faith and civility from other editors – even if it is a page rejection. Remember: all Wikipedia pages are a work in progress, and you can continue to improve rejected articles to meet Wikipedia’s standards.

5) That being said, there are no rules! It’s perfectly acceptable to go about editing Wikipedia using your common sense. In fact, Wikipedia encourages you to be bold – edits can be easily reverted, so you can’t ‘break’ Wikipedia!

Creating a Wikipedia user account

Creating a Wikipedia user account is easy – simply choose a username (your real name or a pseudonym – it’s up to you) and add an email if you’re likely to forget passwords (like me). And that’s it – you’re ready!

To be clear, you can edit Wikipedia without a user account. If you’re editing without an account, your IP address will be registered alongside your edits. This has the disadvantage of revealing your location, and the fact that shared IP addresses (e.g. those belonging to a school or larger institutions) are occasionally blocked for vandalism, which can affect you too. You also won’t be able to keep track of your edits, or keep an eye on pages of interest.

Conflict of Interest

Before editing or creating a Wikipedia page, take care to ensure that there is no conflict of interest present. It may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating this point: do not contribute to Wikipedia about yourself, family, friends, clients, employers, competitors, or any other relationships.

How close a relationship is before it becomes a concern is governed by common sense. For example, I’ve created Wikipedia pages for individuals currently at the same educational institution as me, but I won’t create pages for anyone belonging to my graduate department. If you’d like to learn more, here’s Wikipedia’s policy on conflict of interests.


Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia (i.e. a tertiary source), citing reliable sources is important. You’ll want to cite sources where there’s some form of editorial control i.e. content is fact-checked and verified. For example, you can turn to books, academic journals, newspapers and reliable online sources, such as government websites. You’ll want to avoid sources such as personal blogs or lab websites, and even unreliable media outlets, such as The Daily Mail.

When I go about expanding or creating Wikipedia pages, I generally start off by looking up the individual’s departmental web page or lab website. No, I can’t cite these pages, but they’re good starting points to find a list of the individual’s achievements and then track down reliable sources to verify these facts. For example, if they have a strong track record of publications, I’ll look them up on Google Scholar to report their h-index, number of citations and to create a selected bibliography of their top five cited papers. Have they won a prestigious award? Then there must be a newspaper article somewhere reporting it. I’ll turn to Google News and search for their name in quotations (e.g. “Marie Curie”) to find relevant articles. Once I’ve tackled the basics, I’ll search their name again in quotations, but in the regular Google search engine, to see if there are any other sources I’ve missed – perhaps a government website reporting their achievement, a feature in a magazine or academic journal, and so on.

Anatomy of a Wikipedia biography page

You’ve likely read several Wikipedia pages, so the structure of a Wikipedia page won’t be new to you. But I do want to draw your attention to the following important components in the picture below:

  • Lead sentence(s): this will briefly summarize key characteristics and achievements, and can be short or long depending on the person in question. I tend to write leads in the following format: “X is a Canadian chemist at the University of Y, where they are best known for [insert Z characteristic],” but there is no fixed standard to adhere to on Wikipedia.
  • Use headings to organize the article body in a systematic manner. This can include early life and education, career, honors and awards and selected bibliography. Again, there is no fixed format – you can include or create headings as you see fit.
  • You can also insert templates, such as an infobox, to enhance Wikipedia pages. In the picture below, the infobox provides key biographical details, providing a quick summary to those in a rush.

Now that we know the basics, it’s time to start editing!

How to Edit a Wikipedia Page

To edit a page, look at the top right-hand side of a Wikipedia page. You’ll see three options: Read; Edit (to edit the page) and View History (to see what edits have been made in the past). By selecting edit, you’ll open up the first type of Wikipedia editor: a source editor.

At a first glance, the source editor isn’t the most user-friendly interface. It involves a number of HTML tags, a lot of brackets and pipe symbols…and I don’t enjoy using it. Fortunately, you can easily switch editors (select the pencil tool on the right hand side) to pick Visual Editing instead. This is a “What You See Is What You Get” type of editor – similar to Microsoft Word or Google Docs. All you simply have to do is point your cursor to the paragraph you want to edit…and that’s it!

I strongly recommend the Visual Editor. There’s no learning curve, and it lets you focus on what you really want to do: edit Wikipedia.

Now, let’s shift our attention to the toolbar which features options similar to those that you’d see in Microsoft Office or Google Docs. You can format your paragraphs (headings, subheadings and paragraphs will come in handy), format individual words (e.g. bold or italicize), insert links to already present Wikipedia pages (e.g. perhaps you want to link to Canada, organic chemistry or a potato), insert lists (bullet points or numbered) and much more.

There are three key features I want to highlight:

  • Citations – and no, you don’t need to worry about manually typing a list of references or formatting in a certain citation style. By clicking cite on the toolbar, you’ll be asked to paste a URL, DOI or ISBN to automatically generate a citation (and a list of references at the end of the Wikipedia page). Occasionally, the automatic link generation may not work and you’ll have to type in citation details manually, but this isn’t too tedious. You can also re-use citations once you’ve inserted them in, so there’s no need to repeatedly add the same reference in again and again. Handy, right?
  • The insert option can be used to add in tables, formulae, maps, graphs and a number of templates, including an infobox. By selecting Insert, then template, and then searching for a relevant infobox (e.g. “infobox scientist”), you can add in key details such as the individual’s field, institution, thesis title (and link), alma mater and so much more.
  • This is possibly the most important feature: the save button! Please save your edits regularly to avoid losing them. I accidentally lost my first page and had to re-create it from scratch because I didn’t save my progress…so yes, don’t be like me and save regularly. When you save a page, you’ll be prompted to add in an Edit Summary – which is a brief description of the changes you’ve made. It can be as brief (“fixed typo”) or as extensive (“I added in two paragraphs about their early life”) as you’d like.

…And that’s it. That’s all you need to know in order to edit a Wikipedia page.

Yes, really.

Sure, you can check out other guides (e.g. I personally first learned through this Wikipedia tutorial) and dive into other Wikipedia policies to learn more, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s perfectly acceptable to use common sense as you edit and learn as you go.

The next question you may have is: what pages should you edit? It can be a little overwhelming to know where to start, so if you’re looking for general articles, I recommend checking out the Community Portal. This is a consistently updated list of Wikipedia articles that need further improvement, divided into categories such as: fixing spelling and grammar, fixing wikilinks, expanding short articles (a.k.a. stubs), improving lead sections – and if you’re bilingual, translations too. These are easy tasks to try out if you want to become more comfortable with editing.

You can also focus on specifically expanding short science stubs (which can involve people, organizations and even academic journals) or go to specific WikiProjects for suggestions, such as the WikiProject Women in Red’s suggestions for articles that need improvements or recently rejected drafts that could be improved for a second submission.

And if you’re feeling more ambitious, well, let’s head on to creating pages then!

How to Create a Wikipedia Page

Before you create a page, there’s an important question to ask: should this individual have a Wikipedia page?

If you’ll recall, I mentioned earlier that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia – not a news source or an advertising platform. Not everything belongs on Wikipedia.

This is where Wikipedia’s notability criteria comes in. For academics, Wikipedia suggests a number of conditions (listed below or can be read here). If the individual meets any one of the conditions (which can be verified through reliable sources), then they are considered notable enough for a Wikipedia page.

Most of these conditions are easy to spot e.g. has the individual won a notable award, or been elected as a member of a prestigious society? But it’s also important to note that this is where systemic bias comes in. Individuals belonging to equity-seeking groups are less likely to be nominated for leadership opportunities and awards, or be reported in reliable sources – such as a newspaper article – making it difficult to meet the notability criteria. So it isn’t entirely Wikipedia’s fault that it has a gender and racial bias. Systemic change is necessary within academia and journalism to ensure that the achievements of marginalized individuals are recognized in the first place.

If you’d like page suggestions, I recommend checking out the WikiProject Women in Red’s redlist index, which is a consistently updated list of names (i.e. red links) to turn blue by creating pages.

Once you’ve selected a suitably notable individual (and double-checked that they don’t have a Wikipedia page already), you can head on to using the Article Creation Wizard to create your draft. You’ll go through a series of prompts (reminding you of notability, conflict of interest and to cite reliable sources), will be asked to type in the individual’s name, and then directed to a blank canvas.

What next?

Well, this is your canvas now! You can start off by writing a lead sentence, and then inserting headings to create relevant sections, such as education, career, awards and a selected bibliography.

Be sure to save your progress often. In this case, saving your draft does not mean it is published on Wikipedia. Unless you submit your draft for review, you’re welcome to expand and revise your draft (for up to six months) until you’re ready to submit it for review. Other Wikipedia editors can access your draft in this time too, and may contribute to the page creation too.

Once submitted, an experienced Wikipedian will review your draft, and ensure it meets notability, referencing and formatting standards. This can be quick or can take up to four to six weeks, so be patient! If all goes well, your article may be approved with minor revisions (similar to academia!), but in some cases, your draft may be rejected with specific comments to address.

This is a good place to remember one of the five pillars: to always assume good faith and civility from editors. Pages can be rejected – it happens. It’s happened to me quite a few times. I usually don’t address rejected drafts until a few days later so that I can objectively reassess my draft, address the feedback, and see where I went wrong. And most of the times, my re-submissions get approved!

How to Host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon

If you’re planning to host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon, I’d like to issue a small warning: this will require time, effort and not just you – but a team of supporters to aid you. It’s worth it though – I’ve hosted three Edit-A-Thons so far and enjoyed every minute. But it is a commitment that you shouldn’t take lightly.

My main recommendation is to complete Wikipedia’s three modules regarding running an Edit-A-Thon. This can take up to two hours, but this training will carefully walk you through the logistics involved in hosting such an event. This is a fairly extensive resource, but if you do want to read more, check out Wikipedia’s written guide, and Maryam Zaringhalam’s Science Rising piece on how to host an Edit-A-Thon.

Here are a few tips from my own personal experiences.

Decide what the focus of your Edit-A-Thon will be. Do you want to focus on a specific demographic (such as women, people of color, or people with disabilities?), a scientific field, or perhaps cater it to a specific theme? In the past, I’ve focused on the theme of women in STEM, where two Edit-A-Thons conveniently coincided with the International Day of Girls and Women in Science (11th February).

Once you narrow down your focus, I recommend compiling a list of pages to update or create – preferably using an easy-to-access platform, such as Google Spreadsheets – so that Edit-A-Thon attendees will have “tasks” to pick from on the day.

Brainstorm how you will make your event engaging and interactive. Will you invite a keynote speaker to start the day? Perhaps you want to assign event attendees into pairs/groups, or create small hubs dedicated to different disciplines or themes? Be sure to space out teaching and editing sessions, and provide food and beverages! Wikipedia editing involves thinking and typing, so having food to keep folks going is very important.

Be sure to introduce concepts such as conflict of interest, no plagiarism and notability early on. These are key ideas that editors need to be familiar with in order to be comfortable with navigating and editing Wikipedia.

Partner with local Wikipedia editors! Experienced Wikipedia editors can provide technical assistance where needed – which can be as simple as helping users create accounts to troubleshooting any issues that may arise. That being said, I’ve found that Edit-A-Thon attendees do not face technical difficulties (given how simple it is to use Visual Editor!) but instead struggle with finding or judging whether a source is reliable enough, which is why I recommend partnering with local libraries. In all of my past Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons, I have partnered with different libraries, and invited a guest speaker to discuss sources (e.g. What makes a source reliable? Where can I turn to find more sources?), to ensure all Edit-A-Thon attendees are comfortable with the idea of citing reliable sources.

Here’s something to keep in mind: only six user accounts can be created at a single IP address. Unless every Edit-A-Thon attendee will have their own individual IP address, you should request an exception to the limit for your IP address a least a week in advance, ask event attendees to create an account beforehand, or request an upgrade to your Wiki user status to be able to create multiple accounts. In addition, be sure to ask Edit-A-Thon attendees to bring along laptops or ensure you are in a space where there are computers available. Devices only need to have an internet connection and some form of text input in order to be able to edit Wikipedia. There’s no need for fancy software or prior knowledge of Wikipedia editing.

I also recommend creating your own Programs & Events dashboard to track edits made during an Edit-A-Thon. Be sure to ask users to enrol in your specific dashboard before starting! This is a great way to keep track of progress during the Edit-A-Thon – I usually enjoy sharing final statistics at the end to share the impact the Edit-A-Thon attendees have made in the day.

Overall, I hope that this Sister guide will help you navigate and make contributions to the online encyclopedia more easily. Whether you choose to update or create a Wikipedia page, or host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon, I highly encourage you to get involved! As I mentioned earlier, no one mistake will break the online encyclopedia, so be bold, and start editing. Even contributing one edit a day will make a difference in making Wikipedia less sexist and racist, and improve the encyclopedia’s coverage to better reflect the world we live in today.

You can read more from Farah here: http://farahqaiser.strikingly.com/.

Farah Qaiser
Farah Qaiser

Farah is currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto, where she uses DNA sequencing to better understand complex neurological disorders. When not in the lab, she writes, speaks and organizes various science communication, policy and outreach initiatives.

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