You’ve probably never heard of Clarice Phelps. If you were curious, you might enter her name into Google. And, if you had done so anytime between September of last year and February of

The deletion came after a brief but intense dispute between Wikipedia contributors over whether Phelps met the site’s criteria for notability. Ordinarily, such editorial spats are considered a feature of the crowdsourced encyclopedia, not a bug. If one of the site’s hundreds of thousands of active contributors mistakenly or purposely adds incorrect information, the wisdom of the crowd will ensure that truth prevails.

But in the case of Phelps, the crowd made the wrong call, and the site’s rules facilitated that. The entire spectacle revealed just how much work remains to be done to address the systemic biases that disproportionately keep women and people of color out of Wikipedia’s pages.

Clarice Phelps is thought to be the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element. That apparently wasn’t important enough for her to be included in Wikipedia. [Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory]
Phelps’ entry was created last September by Jess Wade, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Imperial College London. As a side-project, Wade has been working to combat the under- representation of female scientists on Wikipedia. She tries to write one new biography per day, an endeavor that has brought her considerable media attention. So when a journalist writing a book about superheavy elements learned of Phelps’s contribution to the discovery of tennessine, he sent Wade a private message on Twitter, and she promptly created a Wikipedia entry.

Five months later, on February 1, 2019, Phelps’ biography was flagged by an anonymous Wikipedia user, who believed she wasn’t notable enough to deserve her own entry and that not enough had been written about her elsewhere. We don’t know much about that user beyond their IP address — which was associated with a few small tweaks to articles about lasers, TV shows, and baseball players, among other topics. The user doesn’t appear to have been a prolific site contributor.

No matter. Anyone can flag a Wikipedia page for any reason. They don’t need to reveal their identity or know anything about the content of the page they flag. The anonymity fuels trollish impulses.

Wikipedia contributors have several options when they encounter a flagged article. For instance, they may not do anything. The Wikipedia biography of James Andrew Harris has been flagged since April 2016 — the month of its creation — with the message “This article needs additional citations for verification.” Harris was the first African American man to contribute to the discovery of a new element. His Wikipedia page has six references and a few short sentences describing his contribution to the discovery of rutherfordium and dubnium, elements 104 and 105. Despite being flagged for years, Harris’ biography remains on the site.