What’s Wikipedia’s role in deciding who gets honoured?

by Heather Ford, Tamson Pietsch & Kelly Tall

On 26th of January the 2021 Australian Honours were announced. They are intended to recognise the outstanding service and contributions of Australians from all walks of life. But there continue to be questions about the extent to which the system represents the diversity of the Australian nation. As this debate continues, it is important to examine the role that the Honours system plays in shaping who and what is judged as important and its influence on other systems of recognition.

Who gets recognised in the Australian Honours?

Nominations for the Order of Australia are received from members of the public and these are assessed by a panel of representatives who judge a person’s merit in four levels of award: Companion (AC), Officer (OAC), Member (AM), and Medal (OAM). However, since its establishment in 1975, the awards have attracted criticism. A 1995 review highlighted several problems that continue to endure: from political partisanship and the under-representation of migrant and Indigenous groups, to a poor gender balance and a geographical distribution that is weighted towards urban recipients. 

The Honour a Woman project, founded in 2017, has worked to improve gender equity by supporting nominations and highlighting structural barriers to inclusion, but imbalances remain. The absence of Indigenous design and the continued presentation of the awards on the 26th January, both issues identified in 1995 as likely to “contribute to the alienation of indigenous Australians”, remain unchanged. For historians Karen Fox and Samuel Furphy, questions about “the politics of national recognition” and “what it may mean for honours to be “truly Australian” are inherent in the system itself

These ongoing questions highlight the importance of thinking about how notability and distinction are produced more broadly. The work of the Honour a Woman project points clearly to the interdependence of the Australian Honours on other systems of distinction. As their nomination guide points out, building a case for an Honours recipient requires mobilising other forms of recognition, such as in the media or through previous awards.  

Wikipedia as a recognition platform 

Wikipedia is one of these recognition platforms. Created and maintained by a community of volunteer editors (Wikipedians) using a wiki-based editing system, it is the eighth most popular website in Australia, attracting 200 million page views every month. Although Wikipedia claims to be neutral, it is not free from issues of unequal representation. Research has revealed systemic asymmetries that prioritise men, the Global North (particularly the United States and Western Europe), and those who were born in the last century. Women, minorities and Indigenous knowledges face significant barriers to entry. Between 84 and 92% of Wikipedia’s editors are male, topics with a predominantly female audience are weakly represented, and female editors have to endure a high degree of emotional labour when they encounter Wikipedia’s macho editing culture. 

Wikipedia judges a person’s notability according to external signals. According to policy, people are notable when they “have gained sufficiently significant attention by the world at large and over a period of time”, and when that attention can be verified according to what editors regard as “reliable sources”. Rather than deliberating in a panel about who should be recognised, Wikipedia editors determine notability individually and try to reach consensus with others when there are disputes. While the Order of Australia focuses on those who have rendered service to the nation, Wikipedia has a wider latitude to also include people who are notable for other reasons.

Creating recognition 

Given the problems of unequal representation faced by both the Order of Australia and Wikipedia, understanding the processes through which notability is created and projected is crucial. Given the power and influence of WIkipedia as a source of information, understanding its relationship to the Order of Australia is critical.

Analysis shows that most Honours recipients are not represented in Wikipedia.  89% of those with an Order of Australia do not have a Wikipedia page. But the higher the level of award, the more likely a recipient is to also have a page on Wikipedia. 85% of AC recipients have a page, but only 4% of those with an OAM have a page on Wikipedia (Fig. 1). The overwhelming majority of those judged notable by the Australian Honours system are unable to be found on the world’s most used encyclopedia.

Despite this disparity, the Australian Honours system does influence Wikipedia content creation in a powerful way. The announcements of the awards on the 26 January and in June every year act as direct triggers for page creation. The heat map (Fig. 2) shows page creation activity for the weeks leading up to and after the announcement week for each level of the honours. It is notable that this effect is most evident at the AO and AM levels. Recognition by the Order of Australia, acts as a stimulus for recognition on Wikipedia. 

Finally, it is clear that the Wikipedia pages created as a consequence of the Order announcements are for a very particular kind of recipient. Analysis of citation text shows that women who have received an Order of Australia for service in politics, the military, the media, academia and the law are likely to have pages on Wikipedia before the announcement of their award. However, those women who receive an honour for services to disability support, aged care, nursing and Aboriginal affairs have Wikipedia pages created after the announcement of their award. For these forms of work, which are disproportionately accorded less societal recognition in terms of pay and status, the Order of Australia is crucial in acting as a stimulus for wider recognition on Wikipedia. 

As we examine the asymmetries that characterise both the Order of Australia and Wikipedia, it is important to recognise that they are both systems that produce rather than merely reflect notability. Recognition on one platform can produce recognition on another. Whilst this can often work to reinforce existing inequalities, it is an insight that can potentially be employed to address imbalances and under-representation. The Honours system can be used as a tool that draws attention to those individuals that Wikipedia has not hitherto recognised as notable, just as Wikipedia can be a tool to accord recognition to those the Honours system leaves out.

Ultimately these tools lie in the hands of Wikipedia editors and members of the Australian public, any of whom can submit a nomination to the Order of Australia or add an article to Wikipedia. However, as the Honour a Woman initiative points out, and as Wikipedia researchers have highlighted, the ability to effectively use these tools requires understanding the processes, procedures and policies of these recognition platforms. 

Two courses of action might follow on from this. Campaigns, similar to Honour A Woman, that encourage nominations in the Order of Australia for under-represented groups might also consider authoring Wikipedia pages for nominees. At the same time, Wikipedia editors wishing to increase the diversity of representation, might look to those already recognised within the Australian Honours system (particularly at the AO, AM and OAM levels) and create Wikipedia pages for them.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

This post first appeared on UTS’s website. A summary is also on Wikimedia’s blog, written by Pru Mitchell. This article highlights selected results from a larger study on the relationship between Wikipedia and the Order of Australia, undertaken by UTS researchers, Heather Ford and Tamson Pietsch, data analyst, Kelly Tall, and Wikimedia Australia volunteers, Alex Lum, Toby Hudson and Pru Mitchell. We acknowledge the generous support of the UTS School of Communication and Wikimedia Australia in funding this research. It was undertaken on Gadigal lands of the Eora Nation. 

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