Wikipedia:Light one candle
|This essay contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.|
|This page in a nutshell: It is better to light a candle for someone than to curse them in their darkness.|
One of the reasons the Wikipedia project is successful is that its fundamental structure makes it easy for volunteers to retain useful contributions and discard destructive changes. Over time that improves the quality of most articles. This general trend does not necessarily hold true for every specific article. A small number of destructive people do disrupt particular pages. Wikipedia's methods for addressing these problems are effective when used well.
Editors who are expert in a particular field may be new to Wikipedia and unfamiliar with site procedures. This can be jarring if someone accustomed to a measure of professional deference has the bad luck of encountering a problem editor soon after joining the project. An understanding of Wikipedia dynamics helps to maximize productive results.
Why contribute to Wikipedia?
Ideally, a well-referenced Wikipedia article can be a useful source of information for casual readers and a starting point for further research. Wikipedia has a high minded goal of summarizing the world's knowledge in one convenient place and gets most of its help from volunteer editors and donations. Wikipedia articles often appear near the top of search engine results and attract a large readership. As a young project, Wikipedia's pages have uneven quality. Expert editors can help ensure that visitors receive accurate information.
Who is an expert?
Wikipedia has no definitive method of confirming an editor's offline identity or expertise. While the community generally assumes good faith, there remains a chance that an editor who addresses a health issue with the statement, "I am a medical doctor" might actually be a bus driver. All such claims deserve a measure of skepticism.
Fortunately it is easy to track Wikipedia contributions from any username or unique IP address. So for the unofficial purposes of this discussion an expert editor is anyone who contributes 10 or more line citations to a page version that passes featured article candidacy, good article candidacy, featured list candidacy, featured article review, or good article review. At the hypothetical extreme a twelve-year-old might become an expert editor about Laura Ingalls Wilder by citing references to children's books. In practice, that editor would need adult assistance and adult collaborators to raise the biography to good article quality, yet that child could still be regarded as expert on the narrow topic of the Little House on the Prairie texts. An editor who is expert in the conventional sense of professional or academic achievement could probably raise several pages to good article quality in less time than it would take the twelve-year-old to construct ten citations. However, as of this writing Wikipedia's most prolific nominator of featured articles is a self-identified teenager.
Problems and solutions
Section headings here use blunt terms for purposes of clarity. It is a bad idea to specifically call someone a vandal, crackpot, or a troll because that tends to worsen problem behavior.
A tenured university professor who usually lectures before a polite audience may be surprised at the tenor of some Wikipedia discussion. Although most exchanges are polite, occasionally it can feel like stepping off the podium into a barroom debate with a student from the bottom of the class. Essays such as no angry mastodons offer informal solutions for defusing conflicts. If these fail, Wikipedia:Resolving disputes provides formal alternatives.
A POV-pusher is someone who uses Wikipedia to advance a particular point of view. This can lead to healthy collaboration when editors from different points of view all add referenced material to create a balanced article that complies with Wikipedia's neutral point of view policy. Problems can arise when POV-pushers violate guidelines and policies by using unreliable sources, making unverified statements, or blanking referenced material. When an advocate of a specific point of view violates policy, a user conduct request for comment often establishes a consensus that corrects the offending behavior. Formal dispute resolution is another recourse.
It should be noted that Wikipedia's neutral point of view policy seeks to characterize public debate rather than settle it. The encyclopedia strives to be comprehensive in its coverage of the knowledge of mankind, and many religious and political topics are included, including issues (such as creationism) where religious doctrine comes into conflict with scientific thought. Wikipedia's policy here is to cover all significant sides of such debates, attributing each to its sources; this includes presenting the views of groups who take positions which contradict the results of academic inquiry. This can be disconcerting to expert contributors who may consider such positions and the underyling epistemologies to be invalid, unscientific, or anti-intellectual, and thus unsuitable for inclusion in a serious reference work. A nonexpert reader should be able to come away from a Wikipedia article on a controversial topic with enough information and references to form an independent conclusion.
A more complex problem is the persistent editor who joins Wikipedia in an effort to garner attention for ideas that would not merit serious publication elsewhere. Site policies such as Wikipedia:Verifiability and Wikipedia:No original research, and guidelines such as Wikipedia:Reliable sources prohibit this behavior, but enforcement depends on volunteer efforts. Wikipedia's open nature and collaborative culture usually tries to raise a problem editor's awareness and encourage positive contributions before applying punitive measures. Some troublemakers do improve to become good contributors and even administrators. As any experienced Wikipedian knows, real improvement happens less often than people wish for it.
Perhaps the most effective way of resolving differences with an unorthodox contributor is to start a request for comment on the article. Also known as an RfC, this invites the opinions of impartial Wikipedians. To encourage feedback, provide a neutral summary in one or two lines on the requests for comment page and start an RfC section on the article talk page that introduces the issues in an impartial manner. Editors can request comment for any reason, not just disputes or problems, so it usually saves time and frustration to open an RfC before a disagreement becomes rancorous. Reasonable people who have been misled by unreliable sources usually back down when several responses agree with an expert. Even some stubborn cranks give up in the face of unanimous opposition, especially when voiced by a new set of people who had not participated in any previous dispute. If this fails, formal dispute resolution can always follow.
Most vandalism to Wikipedia is little more than graffiti. It deserves no more attention than scrawlings on a restroom wall and, fortunately, is easier to remove; the simplest solution is to revert the page, which takes only seconds. In addition, several bots monitor the site and automatically revert many types of vandalism, such as page-blanking or insertion of profanity into articles.
A further option that takes about one minute is to leave a boilerplate vandalism warning on the vandal's talk page. Wikipedia:Vandalism offers a variety of templates along with instructions for reporting persistent vandals. Under the appropriate circumstances, an administrator blocks the vandal's site access for a short time.
A more serious form of vandalism, which is more difficult to deal with, is the deliberate insertion of misinformation into the encyclopedia. This is done for several reasons--to test Wikipedia's defenses, for fun, or as part of a deliberate effort to foster bad faith amongst editors or to harm and/or discredit Wikipedia. It is often difficult to differentiate between this sort of vandalism and good-faith (but incorrect) edits by well-meaning users. The best way to deal with edits which include manifestly false information is to revert the edit, including a comment in the edit summary (or on the talk page) stating that the information is incorrect. If an editor persists in inserting information which is manifestly incorrect, then the issue may be treated as vandalism.
Obvious trolling is basically vandalism and is simple to address. More serious and subtle trolls, who may resemble crackpots, can be dealt with through the slower dispute resolution process. In the spirit of do not feed the trolls, one low stress alternative is to abandon the article to the troll for a short while. A person who thrives on conflict usually gets bored and leaves, at which point a constructive editor can revert the nonsense and resume progress. A template from Wikipedia:Cleanup resources can caution readers during the interim.
Edit creep is the reverse of Wikipedia's general tendency toward article improvement. Once a page reaches a very high level of writing and scholarship, new contributions from nonspecialists may degrade the article quality in ways that evade the watchful eye of the nonexpert editors who revert obvious damage. Many of these changes may be made in good faith by editors who, for example, add an assertion from an obsolete reference source. Although Wikipedia has projects underway such as the CD edition to distribute stable article versions, no Wikipedia page becomes finished in the way that a published book or journal article is completed. Periodic expert reassessment to discard mistakes and retain improvements should be considered a normal and healthy part of the Wikipedia process.
Popular topics and "cruft"
One of the tenets of Wikipedia is that it is not a paper encyclopedia. Wikipedia is not limited by page count, the capacity of a DVD, or by a fixed editorial staff, and thus includes content on subjects which some users may deem frivolous, unimportant, or otherwise unworthy of coverage in a publication which calls itself an encyclopedia. Sometimes such topics are covered in exquisite detail; Wikipedia provides extensive documentation of topics such as Pokémon and the California state highway system which some Wikipedians refer to as cruft. While established notability policies exist for certain categories of topics (such as musicians), and certain topics are categorically excluded (such as vanity articles), the encyclopedia does not have well-defined general notability criteria. A related criticism is that Wikipedia often has more extensive coverage of such popular topics than it does of some traditionally encyclopedic topics.
Wikipedia is a general reference work intended for persons of all educational and skill levels; thus many editors consider exclusion of lightweight subjects to be inappropriate and consider Wikipedia's extensive breadth to be a strength and not a weakness. Often the editors who write on non-serious topics would not work on the encyclopedia at all if those topics were to be excised from Wikipedia; coverage of Pokémon does not come at the expense of Art of Ancient Egypt or French literature. The best way to correct insufficient coverage of serious topics is to write more about them. Many topics have poor articles due to a lack of editors who are knowledgeable in the subject.
One way to make an article resistant to edit creep and other problems is to improve it until it gains acceptance as a Good article or a featured article. Nonexperts tend to respect a well-referenced text that has passed Wikipedia's quality control process. Most good articles and featured articles get onto the watchlists of several experienced editors. The article's date of acceptance to good or featured status becomes an accepted benchmark for periodic checks and reversions. Troublemakers become somewhat less likely to attack and their changes are less likely to survive, both because more editors watch the page and because of clear differences in quality.
By raising an article to good or featured status an expert can deflect potential accusations of violating WP:OWN: many people think they know some subject well, but an article that passes quality control measures has demonstrated value. Wikipedia is a collaborative endeavor where all editors, both expert and nonexpert, need to remain open to improvements from other contributors. The perfect article does not exist and even featured pieces can improve.
Another way to improve articles on a particular subject is to join an existing WikiProject (or start one if it doesn't exist!). WikiProjects are groups of editors who collaborate to improve the encyclopedia in specific ways; in particular, editing articles on a particular subject. (WikiProjects have other beneficial uses as well). WikiProjects provide a framework to:
- Discuss, with other interested editors, how a large subject should be presented in Wikipedia
- Coordinate related articles so that they have consistent style and organization, are not contradictory, and provide suitable coverage of the topic
- Address disputes on specific articles or larger topics, and permit experts in the subject area to jointly address problems.
- Establish notability criteria if and when cruft, vanity articles, or other material unsuitable for the encyclopedia becomes a problem.
A successful WikiProject can be quite powerful in influencing the content, presentation, and organization of articles under its purview; when an established WikiProject achieves consensus on a matter, it is generally given a great deal of respect by the larger Wikipedia community. Anyone can join or start a WikiProject; and many expert editors have found WikiProjects an excellent way to influence article content and insure correctness.
Progress from stub creation to featured article approval can range from pleasant collaboration to rancorous debate. Most editors and most articles are harmonious, yet exceptions exist, and experts who become Wikipedians need not become disillusioned by the exceptions: site procedures and policies usually work when understood and applied. Wikipedia contribution is a worthwhile pursuit.