A medical professional from the Levant who was instrumental in Arabic Wikipedia’s Covid-19 coverage has been named Wikimedian of the Year.
Alaa Najjar was awarded the coveted title on Sunday, during the ongoing Wikimania conference, taking place until Tuesday.
The annual award, established in 2011 by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, honours top-performing editors and contributors to Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects.
Previous winners include Kazakh entrepreneur Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, Tunisian journalist Emna Mizouni and Ghanaian media professional Sandister Tei, who took home the title in 2020.
Who is Alaa Najjar?
An active contributor since 2014, this year’s Wikimedian has been responsible for nearly 500,000 edits across Wikimedia. He is both an administrator and an editor of Arabic Wikipedia, the 10th most-viewed language in the online encyclopedia, and has contributed to more than 170,000 edits to the site, most of which focus on medical and health subjects.
“Most of my edits on Arabic Wikipedia are in medicine, anatomy and biology articles, but I also contribute in various fields,” Najjar tells The National. The articles that stand out most to him are the ones that were featured by Wikipedia, as well as the ones that met the encyclopaedia’s Good Article criteria. The label is granted to articles that are well written, factually accurate, neutral in point of view and illustrated by properly credited photographs.
“I put a lot of time and effort into them. I wrote nine featured articles, 27 good and six featured lists.”
A lion’s share of those were made in the past 18 months. As the pandemic took hold, many relied on the internet to better understand the novel coronavirus that was bringing the world to a standstill. Seeing misinformation spread even quicker than the virus, Najjar says he knew how crucial it was to present organised and verified facts on Wikipedia.
So if you consulted any Arabic Wikipedia entries about the coronavirus – including its lists of affected countries and prevention guidelines – chances are you are familiar with Najjar’s work.
“Wikipedia had an important footprint in the world in raising awareness during the pandemic,” he says. “I would like to remind you that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information but it is a good starting point and presents information in an organised manner and from reliable and trustworthy sources. During the pandemic, Wikipedia has been a more reliable and trustworthy source than a lot of other websites.”
As fringe theories and misinformation about the virus gained traction, Najjar formed a Covid-19 team with nearly 100 other editors to comb through the medical articles and stop them from being vandalised.
“It was more challenging in the beginning because of the lack of editors with medical background in Arabic Wikipedia,” he says. “But we became more effective after creating the team. The pandemic was a stressful time for me. Like other doctors around the world, it increased my feeling of responsibility.”
Najjar’s work as a Wikipedia contributor and a medical practitioner have always gone hand-in-hand. He began actively contributing to the encyclopedia as a freshman in medical school. Editing Wikipedia articles, he says, helped him brave the stresses of his six-year study and hospital training.
“Wikipedia became part of my daily life even when I had the typical stressful life of a medical student. I always carried my laptop along wherever I went, working on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects whenever I had a break,” he says.
Najjar is currently employed in “a very busy public hospital”. He is tight-lipped about where he lives or where home in the Levant is, but gives some insight into what his typical day looks like and how he manages to be a prolific Wikipedia contributor despite his frantic work schedule.
“I wake up early at 5am to go from my home city to the city I work in nowadays. I usually have three night shifts a week. I take advantage of this time on the bus to keep up with new events in the community, reply to emails and approve edits," he says.
"I always carry my laptop, of course, to check for updates during breaks, if I had any. I make sure to check again and work before going to bed at night. Also, I survive the night shifts at the hospital, the boring workless ones, by working on Wikipedia. I usually contribute to almost 100 entries a day.”
Najjar says it never crossed his mind that he’d be honoured for his input to the online encyclopaedia. Being called by its co-founder and told he had become a Wikimedian, Najjar says, “will always be a special memory I’m proud of. After all these years of contributing with passion, it will encourage me to do even better.
“The concept of free knowledge, and making a difference in this world, especially for people with barriers, such as language, is the thing that attracts me and keeps me motivated.”