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Strickland incident

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By Bradv
Much has been said about the events surrounding Donna Strickland's Nobel Prize and the Wikipedia article about her that was declined before she won it. Little attention has been paid to the perspective of the reviewer who declined it, though. What follows is a review of the Strickland incident, and what can be learned from it, by the reviewer himself.

On May 23, 2018, I (Bradv) declined a draft article about Donna Strickland. The draft had been created by Campbpt0 two months earlier, on March 28, 2018, and no other editors had contributed to it in the meantime. The author had made no other edits to Wikipedia either before or since.

This draft has received considerable media attention, and attracted a variety of comments from around the community about my actions, perceived problems with the Articles for Creation project, and about gender bias on Wikipedia, particularly as it pertains to women working in STEM fields.

This essay is a personal review and reflection of what happened, what might have been done differently, and what we could possibly change going forward.

Draft review

Claims of notability

At the time I reviewed it, the draft made several claims of notability. Strickland is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, she co-invented chirped pulse amplification, she is an associate chair of the physics department, she is a fellow of The Optical Society (OSA), and she won three additional awards.

As an academic, the relevant guideline for establishing notability is WP:PROF. The general notability guideline does not apply to this article, but the rest of the notability guideline, including the section on requiring verifiable evidence (WP:NRV) does apply. WP:NRV states:

The common theme in the notability guidelines is that there must be verifiable, objective evidence that the subject has received significant attention from independent sources to support a claim of notability.

My conclusion at this point was that the topic was potentially notable, even though the strongest claim of notability (that she was an OSA Fellow) lacked a direct citation. As the next step in the review process I took a look at the sources to see if they supported the claims, and if they were reliable and independent of the subject.

Reliable sources

There were three sources provided in the draft:

  1. D. Strickland and G. Mourou, “Compression of amplified chirped optical pulses”, Opt. Commun. 56, 219 (1985)
  2. The Optical Society Biography:

Of these, none were independent as required by NRV and PROF. The first was published by the author, the second is a biography published by The Optical Society (which claims Strickland as past president), and the third is a biography at the University of Waterloo, where she works.

This is a common occurrence at AfC. Editors who are new to Wikipedia seek what is in their minds the most authoritative sources, such as official biographies, and are confused when we request to see news articles instead. Usually an informative decline message, followed by a discussion on a talk page or the Teahouse, is enough for them to come up with reliable sources, or to realize that the subject itself is not notable enough for an article.

Unfortunately in this case, the original author had already abandoned this venture, and the draft went entirely unnoticed for over 4 months.

Nobel Prize

On October 2, 2018, Strickland won a Nobel Prize for Physics. Within 90 minutes of the announcement a new article was created, directly in mainspace this time. The media quickly noted that Strickland had not previously had an article. The Atlantic wrote:

Unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” Strickland, it was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page.[1]

Similar articles from Quartz,[2] Vox,[3] The Guardian,[4] Der Spiegel,[5] and Le Monde[6] pointed to the decline of the draft as evidence of the "marginalization of women in science and gender bias at Wikipedia," as her male colleague has had a Wikipedia page since 2005.[4] As an aside, these news articles all fail to mention that George Smith, who won a Nobel Prize the previous day, had not been the subject of a Wikipedia article before the announcement, either. According to research by KalHolmann, over one-third of all Nobel laureates since 2001 do not have Wikipedia articles on them when the prize is announced.[7]


That same day, I began receiving messages from other editors that this was in the news, and various editors began analyzing and questioning my actions to see if something had gone wrong. These discussions happened in several places, including my talk page, the talk page of the new article, Women in Red, and AfC. While many experienced editors understood my reasoning, others criticized my decline, either based on the expectation that I should have accepted the draft in its state at the time, or that I should have looked for additional sources and improved the article myself.

While most of the criticism came from people unfamiliar with the policies and procedures of Wikipedia, several very senior and respected administrators took me to task on- and off-wiki, claiming I should have known that The Optical Society was a reliable source, and that independent sources are not required for PROF.

Taking these criticisms seriously, and armed with the benefit of hindsight, I reviewed my actions along with the relevant policies and guidelines to see what could be learned.

Policy, guidelines, and procedures

Biographies of living persons

After the 2005 Seigenthaler incident, Wikipedia found it necessary to adopt strict guidelines around editing biographies of living people. The BLP policy says, in its lede:

We must get the article right. Be very firm about the use of high-quality sources.

Especially at Articles for Creation, which faces a continuous onslaught of spam and poorly-sourced biographies, reviewers need to be keenly aware of this policy. There are countless biographies posted every day of people linking to their own organization's website as proof of notability. These are declined summarily, with a message to the author that they need to find sources that are independent of the topic.

In that respect, this draft was treated no differently. This was a single-purpose account who created a poorly-sourced biography. A decline, with a message left to the author with an invitation to the Teahouse, or to the reviewer's talk page, is all that was needed. Unfortunately, the author chose not to engage further, and no other editors came along to help improve the draft.


Determining notability for academics is a notoriously difficult process. PROF is a specific notability guideline, which means that it is used as an alternative to the general notability guideline. GNG insists on significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, but PROF merely requires that the information is verifiable. The relevant test for this article in PROF is the third criterion:

The person is or has been an elected member of a highly selective and prestigious scholarly society or association (e.g., a National Academy of Sciences or the Royal Society) or a fellow of a major scholarly society which reserves fellow status as a highly selective honor (e.g., Fellow of the IEEE).

At the time I declined the draft, it made the claim that Strickland was a fellow of The Optical Society (OSA). However, the claim was supported only by a reference to OSA itself, which fails WP:NRV as not being independent, and it fails the very first line of PROF which states:

Subjects of biographical articles on Wikipedia are required to be notable; that is significant, interesting, or unusual enough to be worthy of notice, as evidenced by being the subject of significant coverage in independent reliable secondary sources.

This claim required at least one additional reliable source. WHYN, which explains the purpose of notability guidelines, states:

* We require the existence of at least one secondary source so that the article can comply with [Wikipedia's] No original research's requirement that all articles be based on secondary sources.

Furthermore, WHYN specifically states that it applies "to all articles, not solely articles justified under the general notability criteria."

Articles for Creation

The AfC flowchart

Various editors have suggested that this could have been resolved by a WP:BEFORE search before declining the draft. However, this procedure applies specifically to nominating articles for deletion, and is not a requirement of the AfC process. AfC is designed specifically to help new editors write their own articles, to give them time to improve them and learn how Wikipedia works before subjecting them to the harsh environment of mainspace. However, AfC is not a place to request that someone else write an article, like WP:RA. But it is also not one user's sandbox, which doesn't allow for other contributors to help. The idea with AfC is that other people can contribute to the article, but that no one, including reviewers, is obligated to do so.

Where BEFORE comes into play at AfC is when nominating a draft for deletion at WP:MFD, which is an attempt to gain community consensus that a draft has no value to the project and should be deleted.

Judging notability

Notability, as it pertains to Wikipedia, is a judgement of the subject of an article, not the content of the article itself. There are plenty of notable subjects that don't have Wikipedia articles. When a draft is reviewed at AfC, it is evaluated based on the information that is presented in the article, and whether that information, together with its sources, is sufficient to establish notability. Therefore, even if a subject is notable, a draft is often declined for insufficient sources. That is not a judgement on the topic's notability – that is a judgement on the state of the draft, and a request for improvement.


The AfC flowchart requires that reviewers check that topics don't already exist, are encyclopedic, are notable, and are reliably sourced. For living persons, it requires an additional check that inline citations are used. This draft failed both the reliably sourced checkpoint and the inline citation checkpoint.

Presently the flowchart makes no mention of WP:SOFIXIT or WP:BEFORE. Many reviewers, including myself, occasionally fix up and accept drafts in this state, but there is presently no requirement to do so before declining a draft.


With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I had taken a few extra minutes to search for additional sources and promote this draft to mainspace myself. Obviously I could not have known that Strickland would win a Nobel prize, nor could I have known that the original author wasn't going to stick around to develop this further and see their work successfully reviewed.

Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to work on an article on a Canadian who would later make history, and I missed it.

Going forward

In the days following the media attention, several observations have been made about things that we could do differently. Without any changes to the guidelines or processes, this incident is very likely to be repeated.

Attract more editors

It is a crying shame that only two people ever made an attempt to write an article about Strickland. The first, from 2014, was deleted as a blatant copyright violation.[8] The second, in May, was abandoned as quickly as it was submitted, the author likely deterred by the two month backlog at AfC. The author of the draft was welcomed, was invited to the Teahouse, and was invited to engage in conversation with other editors and reviewers about the draft.

I hope that the media attention about the lack of coverage of women in Wikipedia will help attract more editors. Evidence from past controversies suggests it will.

Attract more AfC reviewers

There is presently a backlog of approximately 4,000 drafts, with a wait time of over two months. AfC has suffered from a number of reviewers abandoning the WikiProject due to criticism, and has been criticized broadly for years across the Wikipedia community. Any expectations of additional work to be done by AfC reviewers, such as a BEFORE search, will drastically increase the backlog and increase the need for more reviewers.

Require a BEFORE search when declining AfC drafts

If a BEFORE search were part of the AfC workflow when declining drafts, this step could turn up additional sources and lead to a definitive answer on whether the reviewer thinks the subject is notable, per WP:NEXIST. The impact of this change on the AfC project and on the article creation process would have to be carefully considered, but in the wake of this incident a proposal to change this may need to be brought to the community.

AfC sorting

A system of sorting and tagging AfC drafts based on topic area or potential notability would help draw experts into AfC, which could help improve drafts such as this. WP:DELSORT, a similar project at WP:AFD, could be used as a starting point.

Clearly identify reliable sources

It is not clear that The Optical Society is considered a reliable source. A quick look at our article on the society at the time reveals conflict of interest issues, including a reliance on self-published sources. The society is not mentioned as reliable in WP:PROF, nor is there any evidence of Wikipedia editors arriving at a consensus as to the reliability of this source.

Resolve discrepancies between PROF and N

Various editors have claimed that WP:PROF does not require independent sourcing, yet WP:N, particularly WP:NRV states that the requirement for independent reliable sources applies to all articles, even if they are subject to a specific notability guideline such as PROF.

Abolish AfC

If none of the above can be done, the community may want to consider whether to abolish AfC altogether. If this draft had been created directly in mainspace, it would have likely languished as a poorly-sourced BLP, but at least we would have had an article. (I'm not sure that's preferable, but it may be a conversation for the community to have.)

Be grateful for the media attention

The lack of coverage of biographies of women in Wikipedia is a well-known problem, and after this media attention even more people are aware of it. WikiProject Women in Red have worked hard to provide balance, but still more editors are needed.

Awareness of the issue of gender bias goes beyond Wikipedia as well. Katherine Maher of the Wikimedia Foundation tweeted in response to this media attention:

Journalists — if you’re going to come after @Wikipedia for it’s coverage of women, check your own coverage first. We’re a mirror of the world’s biases, not the source of them. We can’t write articles about what you don’t cover.[9]

Or as Le Monde says:

Is the blame on Wikipedia, the media, the research? "We live in a world where a woman won a Nobel Prize without even being promoted to a professor, and you wonder why women leave the university world," says a young researcher on Twitter. "Between this status and the debacle of the Wikipedia page, what is certain is that her work is (or at least was) not considered as it should have. This seems recurrent among women in the academic world."[6]

It is my hope that the criticism of this event and all the media attention will help to make Wikipedia better in its quest to document the sum of all human knowledge. If some of us have to take a beating for this, at least it's a worthy cause.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Koren, Marina (2 October 2018). "One Wikipedia Page Is a Metaphor for the Nobel Prize's Record With Women".
  2. ^ "Wikipedia had rejected Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland because she wasn't famous enough — Quartz".
  3. ^ "The 2018 Nobel Prize reminds us that women scientists too often go unrecognized".
  4. ^ a b Cecco, Leyland (3 October 2018). "Female Nobel prize winner deemed not important enough for Wikipedia entry". the Guardian.
  5. ^ "Donna Strickland: Nicht wichtig genug - Wikipedia verweigerte Nobelpreisträgerin einen Eintrag". 4 October 2018 – via Spiegel Online.
  6. ^ a b "Prix Nobel : pourquoi Donna Strickland n'était pas sur Wikipédia avant de remporter celui de physique".
  7. ^ "User talk:Bradv". 3 October 2018 – via Wikipedia.
  8. ^ "Deletion log" – via Wikipedia.
  9. ^ "Katherine Muahahar on Twitter".
  10. ^ "User talk:Bradv". 3 October 2018 – via Wikipedia.
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Bradv, you certainly have nothing to feel bad about, you were just doing a volunteer task that you took on and you did it well. A key point you made is that there have been many other Nobel Prize winners who did not have an article before they won the prize. So this was not unusual, and certainly not a gender-bias incident. But journalists and editors "jumped" on the story, and the angle they used - woman wins Nobel Prize previously shunned by Wikipedia - was, given the previous history of the non-existence of articles about many winners, a stretch. "Wikipedia gets unfairly bumped around again by the media" seems more accurate. Thanks for all of your good work here. Randy Kryn (talk) 19:33, 28 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]

There was certainly nothing "wrong" in your assessment of the draft as it stood. Asking AfC reviewers to rewrite and research articles would be inviting the collapse of the system under an un-satisfiable workload. I'm sorry for the grief you took on the wiki's behalf.
As for the news coverage - re-write it in your mind as Lazy journalists turn to Wikipedia for cut-and-paste material to meet their deadlines. Find nothing. Decide to write outraged item about Wikipedia instead as being the quicker and easier option. Cabayi (talk) 20:52, 28 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]
placeholder until tomorrow, but I'm going to strike the "unambiguously". DGG ( talk ) 05:08, 29 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@TheDJ: - it's definitely not an evidently wrong idea, but there are cases where I feel that the slightly stronger language of Decline (but not "Reject") is apropos. This disagreement is purely within me, so I imagine that we might get a fair set of mixed views on the matter if you raised it in AfC. Perhaps a gentler one for referencing and a decline for advertorial et al? Nosebagbear (talk) 18:36, 29 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Nosebagbear and TheDJ: To 'decline' something is to refuse it politely and rather formally (I am sorry to have to decline your offer). 'Reject' suggests that what is on offer is felt to be not good enough (an article or book which a publisher has rejected). – BET. Reject is the far stronger word and is more final, personally I would reserve it for clearly inappropriate or totally inadmissible submissions. Decline leaves a more temporary notion such as 'decline (for now)'. Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 22:53, 29 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]
@Kudpung: - I do reserve reject for very rare cases, hence why I delineated it from the "slightly stronger" - in effect, reject is a rough indication that if it is re-submitted, it should at least be considered whether to send it to MFD. Nosebagbear (talk) 23:25, 29 October 2018 (UTC)[reply]


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