Wikipedia:Reference desk/Guidelines

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The Wikipedia reference desk attempts to provide services comparable to those of a library reference desk. Questions posed by users are answered by other Wikipedians, also called "respondents". The aim of the following guidelines is to clarify what are considered appropriate responses.

We expect responses that not only answer the question, but are also factually correct, and to refrain from responding with answers that are based on guesswork. Ideally, answers should refer (link) to relevant Wikipedia articles, or otherwise cite reliable sources. As always, any responses should be civil and avoid anything that could even remotely be considered a personal attack or ad hominem. Many questioners will be newcomers, and the reference desk should be a friendly and welcoming place.

Purposes of the desk

The Wikipedia reference desk works like a library reference desk. In a library, users consult the professional staff at the reference desk for help in finding information. We don't have professional staff, so fellow Wikipedians work to find information relevant to questions posted by others.

The reference desk process helps the growth and refinement of Wikipedia by identifying areas that may need improvement. If an article that could answer a question is lacking the relevant information, look for a way to work the information into the article. This provides a lasting value to the project.

What the reference desk is not

  • The reference desk is not for help using Wikipedia. Unless the answer is very simple, questioners should be referred to the Wikipedia:Help desk.
  • The reference desk is not a chatroom, nor is it a soapbox for promoting individual opinions. Editors should strive to accurately and fairly represent significant views published by reliable sources. An individual editor is not required to provide a fully comprehensive answer – a partial answer may be improved on by subsequent answers. However, responses must not intentionally skew answers to reflect only one side of a material dispute.
  • The reference desk is not a place to seek professional advice on medical or legal matters, nor analyses, diagnoses or solutions to questioners' health or legal problems, and responses that could be construed as such must not be given. However, general medical and legal questions ("What treatments are used for diabetes?", "Which countries recognize common law marriages?") are fine. Questions that ask for medical, legal or other professional advice may be removed and replaced with a message (such as {{RD-deleted}}) pointing to these guidelines. For further information, see Wikipedia:Reference desk/Guidelines/Medical advice.
  • The reference desk is not a service that will do homework for others. It should be made clear to questioners that we will give assistance in interpreting questions, help with ideas and concepts, and attempt to point them to resources that might help them to complete their tasks, but that in the end they should do the actual work themselves.
  • The reference desk is not a place to debate controversial subjects. Respondents should direct questioners to relevant information and discussions, but should refrain from participating in any extended, heated debate.

Talk page guidelines

It should be noted that the Wikipedia talk page guidelines apply to the reference desk, both for posting questions and for responding to questions, unless these guidelines clarify that they do not apply.

Guidelines for responding to questions

As a respondent, you will be viewed (whether you want to be or not) by readers as a representative of the Wikipedia community. Many people have their first Wikipedia experience asking a question at the Reference Desk and it is a good opportunity for us to build goodwill with the readers which in turn can help the encyclopedia. If people have a bad first experience here, they may never come back.

Responses to posts should always attempt to answer the question and should almost always fall into one of three categories:

  • direct answers or referrals to Wikipedia articles, web pages, or other sources,
  • clarifications of other answers, or
  • requests for clarification.

Our standards on verifiability, neutral point of view, or no original research should be kept in mind on the Reference Desk, as well as the rest of the project. Answering questions by referring to articles or even reliable original sources is consistent with these key content policies. Try to make sure that statements of fact in answers can be supported by an article or reference. If it is impossible to answer a question without some calculation, please make this clear in your answer with a phrase such "My calculation is as follows …". Aside from calculations, however, answers should be verifiable, that is, to the extent the questioner wishes to verify that the answer is not fabricated, there should exist a reliable source (or sources) that would give the same answer.

Don't worry if you can't completely answer a question. Some questions may demand a broad range of skills and knowledge; it is still helpful to contribute from your areas of personal expertise, and your partial answer may provide useful pointers for other editors who can then expand on your initial response. Don't feel as though you need to answer every question either - if you lack the relevant knowledge, someone else may have it. It's better to not answer at all than to give incorrect or misleading information.

Personal opinions in answers should be limited to what is absolutely necessary, and avoided entirely when it gets in the way of factual answers. In particular, when a question asks about a controversial topic, we should attempt to provide purely factual answers. This helps prevent the thread from becoming a debate.

Content and tone

The reference desk is not censored. No subject per se is off limits.

Wikipedia is a broad-scope encyclopedia, so questions about topics related to politics, sexuality, bodily functions, or religion, for example, may yield responses that some people consider offensive. We understand that some responses about very controversial subjects, or any discussion of what some may consider "taboo" subjects, are more likely to offend some people than discussion of other subjects. This is unavoidable. Responses are not deemed to be inappropriate as long as they are relevant to the question. However, we take special care to treat potentially offensive subjects with sensitivity, diligence, and rigor. Further, we never set out deliberately to offend, and we endeavor to quickly remove needlessly offensive material in questions or responses.

The desk is not intended to present an overly formal atmosphere; responses may be lighthearted while still maintaining their purpose. Humor is allowed in reference desk answers, provided it is:

  • relevant to the question,
  • not at the expense of other people, including the questioner, and
  • not needlessly offensive.

Please don't start adding jokes just for the sake of it, and don't let humor get in the way of providing a useful answer. Some people (for example children and non-native English speakers) may not understand the joke, or, worse, may mistake a joke for a serious answer. 'In-jokes' can make outsiders feel confused or unwelcome. Sarcasm can be especially hard to detect in a written statement.

In particular, don't poke fun at a poorly written question. The reference desk necessarily involves communication between questioners and respondents from different backgrounds and cultures. There may be a number of reasons for 'badly written' questions – the questioner may not have enjoyed a formal education, or may suffer from learning disabilities – but they still deserve a proper answer. If you're not sure about the meaning of a question, ask for clarification; if you think you understand the question, feel free to state your assumptions and attempt an answer.

We should in all cases strive to exceed the minimum standard of civility. Assume good faith, and don't make the mistake of confusing an editor's poor English with intentional rudeness. Remember that all Reference Desk staff are volunteers and deserve to be treated courteously.

Don't edit others' questions or answers

...except to fix formatting errors that interfere with readability (like a leading space or unclosed markup tags). Do not correct spelling or presumed typos, or anything that might change the meaning of the question.

If there is no title to a question, add one. You may also add to a non-descriptive title (such as "question"), but it is best to keep the original title as a portion of the new one, as it may be used by the questioner to find the question.

Don't add wikilinks to a question or the title; it may unduly suggest to others that the questioner was aware of the Wikipedia articles. Instead, if relevant, just include these links in your response.

Page protocols and layout

Although the Reference Desk project pages are not strictly talk pages, the same indentation conventions apply.

Sometimes one question leads to another and it is a good idea to create a new heading to keep the new answers from overwhelming the original question and answers.

Complex technical questions and questions of a more subjective nature may prompt substantial answers from many parties, so please remember to sign your responses (with ~~~~).

Signing your replies adds a 'personal touch' and also allows questioners to follow up responses privately, for in-depth discussions or debates that may not be appropriate for the Reference Desk itself. Please leave a line space between your reply and the previous poster—it makes the page easier to read and edit.

Some people go online using a dial-up modem, so please be sparing in your use of inline images on the page (consider linking them, instead) and limit off-topic discussion. The Reference Desks are large pages, and we all need to do our part to keep them accessible to as many people as possible.

Provide source information

For some types of questions, answers that contain references are more useful than those which don't. For those questions, make a serious effort to locate a Wikipedia article or an outside reliable source that supports your assertions, and include a link to it in your answer. You may know that your answer is correct, but a reader has no way to judge how reliable your information is unless you specify your sources. Even if your only source is, say, your own recollections from your school days, it is very helpful to state so in the posting. If there is a Wikipedia article that should answer a question, but doesn't, make this clear; you don't want to send a questioner on a wild goose chase, and you do want to let other editors know that the article needs improvement.

Use external links from answers as sources to improve our articles

The Reference Desk is a service to the encyclopedia, and not just a service provided by the encyclopedia. If people ask questions that our articles don't address, use the answers to improve our articles—so long as the answers can be verified by a reliable source.

Reference requests and factual disputes

While we should keep the Wikipedia verifiability policy in mind while answering, and referenced answers are strongly preferred, it is not always efficient or useful to apply the policy strictly. If you believe a response should provide a reference, but does not, feel free to politely ask for one. If somebody requests a reference for one of your own responses, please try to provide one or indicate that you cannot. If you believe your own earlier answer is wrong, you may strike it out or add a clarification. If you think somebody else's answer is wrong, add a comment explaining why you think so, and provide evidence, if possible. Make a serious effort to locate supporting sources, as you would in an original answer. Do not delete an incorrect answer, solely because it is wrong, even if you can prove that it is. Instead provide the evidence and let the readers decide.

When moving a posting

Occasionally material will end up on a particular Reference Desk that is better suited to another Reference Desk, the Help Desk, the Reference Desk talk page, or any of a number of different WikiProject pages or article talk pages. Any user can move this content to the appropriate page, but please only do so in a manner that is easy for everyone to follow.

When moving content from a Reference Desk page, please do not remove the section header, and please do add a signed note describing the move and linking to the new location, such as:

<small>Question moved to "[[Wikipedia:Reference desk/Computing#Computer (IP address)|Computer (IP address)]]" on the Computing desk. -- ~~~~ </small>

At the new location of the content, please note and link to the original source of the material with a signed comment, such as:

<small>Question moved from "[[Wikipedia:Reference desk/Miscellaneous#Computer|Computer]]" on the Miscellaneous desk. -- ~~~~ </small>

The moved material should generally be placed in a new section and treated as a new submission (e.g. placed in the location for new submissions—the bottom of the page on a Reference Desk page or talk page). Standard talk page guidelines also apply: a move should never change the meaning or content of others' postings.

Particularly for less-experienced Wikipedia editors and posters, it can also be helpful to place a polite notification of the move on the original poster's talk page, with a link to their question's new location.

If you have any concerns regarding a move or aren't sure of the appropriate destination, please discuss the action on the Reference Desk talk page first (to avoid unnecessary shuffling of content).

When removing or redacting a posting

When removing or redacting someone else's posting, the usual talk page guidelines apply. In particular, never edit someone's words to change their meaning. Editing others' comments is sometimes allowed, as discussed in these and the present guidelines, but you should exercise caution in doing so. In all cases, use common sense rather than some literally minded interpretation of the guidelines. Removing postings unwisely is bound to result in hurt feelings and acrimonious debate.

When removing a posting, also remove any posted reactions, unless they are appropriate and can stand on their own, not needing the other removed material for context.

In general, you should leave a note on the Reference desk page explaining your edit and the reason behind it. When removing a questioner's e-mail address, there is no need to sign the removal note; just replace the address by a text such as:

<E-mail address removed to prevent spamming>

A personal attack can be removed by replacing it by

[Personal attack removed. ~~~~]

In such cases the reason should be obvious and need not be stated separately.

For removing a question seeking medical advice, you can make use of the boilerplate text of Template:RD-deleted to replace the question. Here it is particularly important to also remove any reactions that can be construed as offering a diagnosis, advice on treatment, or prognosis. But please use common sense — not all questions involving medical or legal topics are seeking advice. (See also Wikipedia:Reference desk/guidelines/Medical advice.)

When you remove a posting, it is recommended to note this on the Reference desk talk page. Include a diff of your edit. For example:

== Medical question removed==
I have removed a question seeking a medical diagnosis. ~~~~".

Please do not restore a question that was removed by another editor acting in good faith using a reasonable interpretation of the Wikipedia policies and guidelines, just because you disagree with the reasoning, and also do not discuss this on the Reference desk pages themselves. Instead, discuss the issue on the Reference desk talk page, so that, hopefully, consensus may be reached.

External links