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October 6, 2010 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia. Aimed at scientists editing science articles.
posted by jjray (48 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Congratulations: Alanis Morissette lost a tooth, and the Irony Fairy left a set-of-instructions-for-editing-Wikipedia-printed-in-a-scientific-journal under your pillow!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:16 AM on October 6, 2010


Rule #11: Time Spent Getting Your Degree in the Article's Topic is Less Important than Time Spent Engaging in an Edit War Over the Article's Topic

You may have studied your field for 20+ years, but if you do not have three weeks to dutifully revert an article back to what you know is correct, then all of your diplomas are for naught.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:22 AM on October 6, 2010 [16 favorites]


l33tpolicywonk: Congratulations: Alanis Morissette lost a tooth, and the Irony Fairy left a set-of-instructions-for-editing-Wikipedia-printed-in-a-scientific-journal under your pillow!

Wouldn't it be more ironic if Alanis Morissette lost a tooth and the Irony Fairy left under my pillow an issue of a tabloid featuring Canadian musicians with missing teeth, but the issue went to press before her tooth losing incident, so she wasn't included?
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:28 AM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Per ikkyu2.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:28 AM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wake me when you find a linguistics journal article on LOLcat.
posted by sawdustbear at 10:37 AM on October 6, 2010


I gave up on wikipedia so long ago that every time I hear about it my first thought is, "It still exists?" I personally find little value in subject matter I cannot trust. It pretty much kicks ass for obscure anime facts or TV show trivia (anything that people can be obsessive about), but try trusting it for any factual and unbiased representation of any public or political figure and you'll step on your dick if you repeat that information without checking it like 5 times other places.

Add in wikipolitics and entrenched editors and cult of personality and you have a clubhouse for trivia wonks that's not worth visiting.

Disagree with me? Dare you to use wikipedia for mushroom identification.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:39 AM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good old ikkyu2. "HOW DARE YOU CONTRADICT ME!"
posted by Gator at 10:40 AM on October 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wikipedia is dead. Luckily, when you embrace the truthiness that is Conservapedia, the 7 Commandments of Conservapedia are pretty straight-forward.
/AMERICAN HAMBURGER
posted by filthy light thief at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2010


imagine you have been tasked with writing a comprehensive scientific review for a high school audience.

This sentence actually made me happy, which is more than I can say for most journal articles I read. I will now commence imagining....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:50 AM on October 6, 2010


Why can't they just fork wikipedia entries? Ikkyu2 can write an expert review of epilepsy and "the guys who haven’t yet mastered English grammar, but saw someone fall over and shake, was frightened, and decided to instruct the world that this is what epilepsy is about" can write their article, and i can choose which one is useful.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:53 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


While i still read Wikipedia for very, very general info, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. First, because my wife tried to fix the birthdate in a famous person's profile; it was deleted within minutes, and on her third try (including putting comments in the person's 'talk" page), she gave up. That high-ranking editor who had once read the poorly-written biography got to be Right, despite evidence otherwise.

Next, I wrote a long article on my blog about a topic i know a lot about. Some guy sent me an incensed email for being wrong, because Wikipedia said something else. When I told him the facts and explained my position, he conceded the point, but then asked why I didn't post what I knew at Wikipedia. First, I said, I was certain it'd be deleted quickly because I contradict the Truth at Wikipedia, and second, my high school classes taught me that the discourse of knowledge is helped by having multiple researched sources and viewpoints. Having a single authority, regardless of the reliability of that source, means somebody's not thinking hard enough about what's being discussed.
posted by AzraelBrown at 10:58 AM on October 6, 2010


"Cite, cite, cite" doesn't even begin to cover it these days, sadly. Well-researched articles of even a few paragraphs in length, with clearly stated sources, can still be raked over the coals by the footnote-police attitude that's prevailed in the last few years of Wikibureaucracy. This is what finally drove me out, after years of editing (yes, often in the subject of my Ph.D.): not the anti-expertise culture, though of course it occasionally chafes to quarrel fruitlessly about edits with people who know literally nothing about an article's subject, but rather the obsessive-compulsive level of micro-citations demanded, which run far beyond any sane or academic standard into actively impeding the writing of new contributions. What the wonkiest of editors demands is — literally, without exaggeration — a footnote on every clause of every sentence in an article, each of which footnotes points to the same source. Because of course you couldn't trust readers to know that a single footnote covered more than one claim. It's impossible to write and research new material in an environment of childish universal "but why?" skepticism, and {{citation needed}} has gone from a running gag to a reason to delete material.
posted by RogerB at 10:59 AM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


How about "Don't edit Wikipedia." That seems like a good rule.
posted by dortmunder at 11:01 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is not primarily aimed at experts; therefore, the level of technical detail in its articles must be balanced against the ability of non-experts to understand those details.

I'm not sure this is true.

Science and math articles are often nothing but technical jargon.
posted by empath at 11:04 AM on October 6, 2010


Also, this is just bunk:
Your specialist knowledge should enable you to write in a neutral manner and produce reliable, independent sources to support each assertion you make. If you do not provide verification, your contributions will be rightly challenged irrespective of how many degrees you hold.
This is a familiar enough claim to anyone who's spent time in the ceaseless discussions of Wikipedia's "expert retention" problems, but it's (at best) an attempt to distract from or circumlocute around a major problem. One of the key properties of expert knowledge in any academic field is a command of the baseline of scholarly common knowledge, the current state of research in that field, much of which is generally unciteable and unsourceable because it's not publishable "news" but rather the general state of the conversation. An expert is far less likely to be able effortlessly to "provide verification" of her claims about her field of expertise than a student who's just learning the field through introductory texts. Despite the expert's introductory general summary of the field being far more trustworthy than the student's, it's also far more likely to be deleted from Wikipedia unless she spends hours hunting down other experts' introductory texts to cite in confirmation of her account.
posted by RogerB at 11:13 AM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why can't they just fork wikipedia entries? Ikkyu2 can write an expert review of epilepsy and "the guys who haven’t yet mastered English grammar, but saw someone fall over and shake, was frightened, and decided to instruct the world that this is what epilepsy is about" can write their article, and i can choose which one is useful.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:53 PM on October 6 [1 favorite +] [!]


An interesting idea. It's conceivable that a gitpedia (or a DvcsOfYourChoicePedia) could exist, where different maintainers push and pull articles from each other depending on who trusts who.

Let's say I'm interested in finding out about epilepsy. How do I find these different articles? And how will that means of finding articles allow me to tell different versions of an article apart, so that I can ensure that I get ikkyu2's version? One set of answers to these questions would be "Google" and "the respective articles' URLs", but I'm guessing that people are looking for a more centralized repo of information.
posted by Jpfed at 11:20 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


It pretty much kicks ass for obscure anime facts or TV show trivia

No. It used to, and it should. But increasingly, it doesn't. The people who took over—the people robocop is bleeding refers to, accurately—have an unhealthy and unrealistic obsession with "legitimizing" Wikipedia, with making it equivalent to a real, serious encyclopedia. (Which it will never be, because they are dilettantes.) So they crusade against "original research," which rules out all of that awesome stuff that Wikipedia used to be good for.

The joke is, those—obscure anime facts or TV show trivia—are things that Wikipedia-people actually know. They eschew that stuff and instead attempt to be authoritative on things they don't.
posted by cribcage at 11:22 AM on October 6, 2010 [12 favorites]


While I agree with some of the negative sentiments expressed above, Wikipedia is a big website with many reasonable, intelligent contributors. There are plenty of ways that one can make substantial contributions with a very low chance of being reverted or getting embroiled in an edit war.

For example, I've uploaded hundreds of media files to Wikimedia Commons and added many of them to Wikipedia -- none has been deleted, and very few of my edits have been reverted. I regularly tidy up articles, fix spelling and grammar, and add links to sites like Wikimedia Commons, Wikisource and Project Gutenberg -- 99% of the time these edits survive in the long run.

So, yes Wikipedia can be annoying sometimes, and I seldom bother to make big edits to controversial subjects due to the high chance of getting involved in some tedious dispute. But that's really only one mode of edting, and there are lots of worthwhile, hassle-free ways to contribute.
posted by mattn at 11:22 AM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


It pretty much kicks ass for obscure anime facts or TV show trivia

No. It used to, and it should. But increasingly, it doesn't.


But it's not as if that material has nowhere else to go. It's just increasingly moving to subject-specific wikis, many of which are quite good, such as Memory Alpha, Wookieepedia, or Lostpedia.

ikkyu2 and those who share his concerns may be more interested in Citizendium.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:45 AM on October 6, 2010


I don't know, I think it's a good list of guidelines. Thoughtful, readable and fairly thorough.

Regarding Wikipedia itself, I find it perfectly adequate for what I've always used encyclopedias for: to look up shit when my smart friends drop the name of a dead French author or branch of math or what turns out to be a Spanish entrée (oh, wait, that's food????) and I get a quick screen full of overview that's kind of perfect (most of the time) and accurate enough.
posted by victors at 11:54 AM on October 6, 2010


Wikipedia is not primarily aimed at experts; therefore, the level of technical detail in its articles must be balanced against the ability of non-experts to understand those details.

I'm not sure this is true.

Science and math articles are often nothing but technical jargon.


The authors are expressing their ideal: what they believe Wikipedia should be, not what it is. Even so, I'm not sure that should be universally true; I tend to agree more with this essay which expresses more of a "make articles understandable to non-experts if that can reasonably be done, but some articles by their nature will be highly technical and difficult for the layperson to understand" ethos. Or in the words of the essay, "For highly specialised topics where it is simply not possible to even give an overview in terms with which a general audience will be familiar, it may be reasonable to assume certain background knowledge. For example, many topics in advanced mathematics fall into this category."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:02 PM on October 6, 2010


It's just increasingly moving to subject-specific wikis

While that is admittedly better than not having the information online at all, it's not nearly as good as having it all centralized in one authoritative place. Which is what Wikipedia used to be.
posted by cribcage at 12:03 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Science and math articles are often nothing but technical jargon.

Simple English Wikipedia could fill the gap between content that helps college students comprehend their course material and introductions to the topics for everyone else. Sadly, Riemannian manifold has no article yet, and much of the simple English list of noncommutative topics in mathematics are edit links, hoping someone will fill in the topics. Perhaps this would be an interesting project for a mathematics education course to work on, with the results being reviewed for accuracy and legibility.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:09 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


While that is admittedly better than not having the information online at all, it's not nearly as good as having it all centralized in one authoritative place. Which is what Wikipedia used to be.

I disagree: Memory Alpha is a more authoritative place for information on the Star Trek universe (not to mention real-world info about the Star Trek franchise) than Wikipedia is or ever was. Simply because it's more likely to be edited (or at the very least, to have the edits vetted) by die-hard Trekkers, rather than the person who saw three or four episodes. Would having all that information for hundreds of television shows and movies and book series within Wikipeda constitute it being "centralized in one place?" Sure. Would it be "centralized in one authoritative place?" No.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:13 PM on October 6, 2010


I had to laugh at the first item on that list, "Register An Account."

I use Wikipedia all damn day, because I need to look up stuff that is "pretty much for the most part true," and that's what Wikipedia excels at.

Typically I limit my edits to cases of blatant grammatical error or downright goofy writing. (I spend a lot of time consulting horse-related articles, many of which have apparently been edited by eight year old girls. Bless their hearts, but they typically have more enthusiasm for the subject than writing skills.)

One time I dared make an change to some actual information. The change was reverted within hours. I looked up the person who had reverted me and found his profile page, where he stated that:

1. "It's my policy to revert all changes, because 99% of them are wrong at this point."

2. "It's my policy to revert all changes made by an anonymous source."

I rolled my eyes, created an actual Wikipedia account, made the change again, and left a note on the Talk page about it.

A few hours later I found that:

1. The same guy had reverted my change again.

2. He had flagged my account as a sock puppet! Of the IP address logged when I made the first change.

At this point I realized that I was up against a force to be reckoned with. Which is to say: a Wikipedia geek with an axe to grind, an ego to feed, and an apparently unlimited supply of free time.

I gave up, and haven't made an edit since.
posted by ErikaB at 12:22 PM on October 6, 2010 [13 favorites]


Being a jerk who knows the rules for being a jerk on Wikipedia always beats knowing what you are talking about or common sense, and there is an unednding supply of jerks like that there. Generally it all sort of works out in the end, but if said jerks have staked out an obscurish subject matter it can be a real problem.
posted by Artw at 12:30 PM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's just increasingly moving to subject-specific wikis

While that is admittedly better than not having the information online at all, it's not nearly as good as having it all centralized in one authoritative place.


I disconcur. For instance, see The Transformers Wiki (prev) has ridiculously detailed character profiles (as well as cheeky articles) that wouldn't survive on Wikipedia. Those articles are definitely beyond the realm of "necessary facts," but to a degree, that's part of the community and fandom that is removed from Wikipedia articles. Also, they include media that Wikipedia would not allow, based on it's more stringent rules for images and audio, which seem to rarely raise flags elsewhere.

Wikipedia can have a decent set of articles on bit characters, but TFWiki has three characters with the name Spike Witwicky. That's a level of dedication I think would be overkill on Wikipedia, but that may just be me.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:33 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and Cite, Cite, Cite is the real important rule there. Citing is to lesser grade wikipedia griefers what a clerics symbol is to the undead in D&D. Then again, you get your higher level deletionists and griefers who can ignore your cites via wikilawyering of one kind or another, and that's a real bummer because they'll shit all over something you put real effort and research into citing.
posted by Artw at 12:34 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Actually I read math articles all the time, and am forever pointing friends of mine towards physics articles (I'm a physicist).

I wouldn't trust it for mushrooms, and I won't ever use it as the final authority on a mathematical object, but it can tell me pretty quickly the information I need to go find more information.

Additionally, even though many of the math articles have what seems like a wall of jargon-- it's still much better than trying to read the original math papers (as in much less jargon-y). This is true for many of the physics articles too-- I'm sure some very smart people have spent tons of time trying to create those articles, improve them, and defend them against degradation. The process often results in a somewhat-easier-to-understand description of a topic.

I'm not going to start editing, though. Maybe someday I'll get tenure and then we'll see if I'd like to be one of the wonderful people willing to torture myself by defending my understanding against people who are genuinely clueless.
posted by nat at 12:38 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also use Wikipedia pretty much constantly for my job. I'm a translator. If I want to know who some King Jakob is, Wikipedia will tell me that it's the German name for King James. I wouldn't have ever known that and I sure as damn hell don't want to make a trip to the library for that type of thing when I'm getting paid by the keystroke. Wikipedia saves my ass all day long. The article on fox-tossing is excellent, likewise for Friedrich Wilhelm's regiment of kidnapped giants, and that's some shit I've urgently needed during the workday.
posted by creasy boy at 12:50 PM on October 6, 2010


> try trusting it for any factual and unbiased representation of any public or political figure and you'll step on your dick
> if you repeat that information without checking it like 5 times other places.

Don't people do that as a matter of course anyway, for anything they care about? I always thought of wikipedia as a decent enough place to begin, not to end. (Being, in that, no different from old-style encyclopedias, even the EB--if your research paper doesn't have any reference except the encyclopedia, you flunk research paper.)


> I wouldn't trust it for mushrooms, and I won't ever use it as the final authority on a mathematical object, but it can
> tell me pretty quickly the information I need to go find more information.

Just so.
posted by jfuller at 12:50 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the way, if you have infinite space time, a fetish for finding references and filing in cite templates, and want to combat Wikipedias tendency towards deletionist fuckwadery then there's always the Article Rescue Squadron.
posted by Artw at 1:02 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why can't they just fork wikipedia entries? Ikkyu2 can write an expert review of epilepsy and "the guys who haven’t yet mastered English grammar, but saw someone fall over and shake, was frightened, and decided to instruct the world that this is what epilepsy is about" can write their article, and i can choose which one is useful.

That's about.com and knol.

Actually I read math articles all the time, and am forever pointing friends of mine towards physics articles (I'm a physicist).

Yeah, the math / physics articles tend to be fairly faithful copies out of a textbook or seminal article. This is particularly useful when I need articles from a math branch which uses different jargon than I'm used to. For example, I randomly needed the word for the generalized central-limit theorem from kolmogorov for exponentials, and found it right in the intro paragraph for the CLT: stable distributions which mostly cites a few key texts. I'm sure a wiki-nerd could go through and harp on the fact that they don't cite the textbook every third word.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:27 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


None of these rules are surprising or beyond common practice. These are similar to the rules used for writing a critical review, for example. For most scientists, these guides won't be a huge problem, modulo their talent for writing such things. This is exactly the approach I take when writing for pop science journals and even AskMe answers. This article is good sense for almost all science writing, in my view.

However, if you work in anything even vaguely controversial, environmental science to pick a random topic, few of these good-faith rules seem to apply. An "established" editor with a strong viewpoint or even a crowd of people who learned the wrong thing in primary school can revert an otherwise neutral, but scholarly, viewpoint. Consider, for example, how many people still believe the "Aluminum causes Alzheimer's" myth, even though it's been debunked thousands of times. Wiki articles tend to reflect commonly-held opinions, or well estabished findings, but can be a decade or more behind the leading-edge research.

With a mass-edited thing like wikipedia, it's a large job to not just write the original article, but to curate it over time, especially in a subject matter prone to activism and political rather than technical considerations. Most researchers I know don't have the time or energy to do so. It's much easier to publish an article in a good journal than it is to fight over the text of a wiki article.

I treat wikipedia the way I would an unreliable undergraduate text. It's a decent intro to many subjects, but it's no more than second-year in level and no more reliable than a good undergrad's understanding of the subject matter. Subtle it does not do.
posted by bonehead at 1:38 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I tend to trust wiki articles that ONLY subject matter experts would bother to look at. I'd give an example buy I've afraid some guy named Trevor who is gonna learn Cory Doctorow about the open source movement would get involved.

After that, yeah, subject matter wikis.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:29 PM on October 6, 2010


"Being a jerk who knows the rules for being a jerk .... always beats knowing what you are talking about or common sense...."

I think you just identified the fundamental nature of politics, and why so many politicians are lawyers.
posted by Xoebe at 3:11 PM on October 6, 2010


The article on fox-tossing is excellent

*boggle*

See also: Goose pulling.

*boggle boggle*
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:55 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fox tossing, bear baiting, goose pulling, ferret legging...Somebody needs to start a comprehensive site detailing all the various [critter] [verb]ing sports.
posted by Gator at 4:08 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Somebody needs to start a comprehensive site detailing all the various [critter] [verb]ing sports.

Perhaps a wiki?
posted by hippybear at 4:43 PM on October 6, 2010


Hmmm. Critterverbing.com is available...
posted by Gator at 4:49 PM on October 6, 2010


Wake me when you find a linguistics journal article on LOLcat.

Here you go, sawdustbear.
posted by nangar at 5:15 PM on October 6, 2010


a comprehensive site detailing all the various [critter]

While I'm not thrilled with Wikipedia's internal politics, Wikipedia tries to do the best it can with the resources available, even though I'm not as engaged as I once was, but life goes on. I can remember back to the good old days before the internets, when nothing like this was around. Ah, the dark ages...

If you really don't like Wikipedia, you have the option to go somewhere else. Personally, I am actually rather happy with my random grazing of Key Cambrian explosion events, Dasyuromorphia, and The War of The Spanish Succession.
posted by ovvl at 5:37 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you really don't like Wikipedia, you have the option to go somewhere else.

Thank you for pointing that out.
posted by Gator at 5:40 PM on October 6, 2010


I have to say that for my purposes, I go anywhere but Wikipedia for math stuff. I have this bad combination of traits:

1. Knitter

2. Certified sufferer of dyscalculia (I have an official letter from a psychiatrist and everything!)

This means that at any moment I could have a burning need to drop everything, scramble madly for the computer, and try to learn me how to calculate the area of a trapezoid. Very slowly and with pictures please.

Also it's 11:30PM and I've maybe had a glass of wine or two, and I'm running out of this really expensive yarn that I can't buy more of in the same dye lot, definitely not at this time of night, and I have 31 grams left, and is that going to be enough to finish this project IS IT BECAUSE I REALLY NEED TO KNOW RIGHT NOW.

In these situations, the Wikipedia articles are... let's use the term, opaque.

I'm sure these calculations are accurate and awesome and very pleasing to mathematicians. But to the rest of us... DAAAAAMN.
posted by ErikaB at 8:59 PM on October 6, 2010


1. "It's my policy to revert all changes, because 99% of them are wrong at this point."

2. "It's my policy to revert all changes made by an anonymous source."


Dare I say it? Citation needed.
posted by grouse at 5:36 AM on October 7, 2010


I'm sure these calculations are accurate and awesome and very pleasing to mathematicians. But to the rest of us... DAAAAAMN.

The first one is the only one you need if you have a ruler -- you just need to measure the top line, the bottom line, and the distance between them.
posted by empath at 6:39 AM on October 7, 2010


I'm gonna say that 90% of the information on wikipedia is camped out and defended by arrogant douchebags with way too much time on their hands who will simply revert any changes you make so probably limit your editing to non-controversial and out-of-the-way articles and spare yourself some frustration, scientists.
posted by tehloki at 10:45 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you really don't like Wikipedia, you have the option to go somewhere else.

Thank you for pointing that out.


Sorry, I meant to say that Wikipedia is imperfect and functional.

Like many things.
posted by ovvl at 6:29 PM on October 8, 2010


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