Wikipedia:Relationships with academic editors

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Wikipedia and the world of academe has, sometimes, an uneasy relationship. This is not the old saw that Wikipedia is not a valid work to cite in academic research. That is a given. This is the issue that an editor who is also an academic may find the climate for editing here a difficult, sometimes a hostile climate, most certainly a strange and unfamiliar one.

It's a different environment[edit]

Wikipedia is not an easy environment for an academic used to publishing papers and other material subject to rigorous peer review.

Wikipedia is an unfamiliar environment to every new editor. However, to the academic or other expert who encounters it, Wikipedia is a strange, perplexing, often hostile place. In part this is because it is like nothing in mainstream academe. There is no peer review, no overt rigour, though some form of rigour happens by consensus over time. There is no ownership of articles, and no reputations for the academic are built on Wikipedia by the publication of papers, or other matters.

The issue faced by academics and experts is that it is they who must bend their way of working to suit Wikipedia. Wikipedia will not ever bend to suit theirs, however strong their usual procedures and traditions, however excellent their knowledge, and however correct they are.

Experienced Wikipedians know this, perhaps instinctively. They understand that the cut and thrust of Wikipedia is a useful fun hobby, and that Wikipedia, while it strives for correctness, is nothing like academic journals. Experienced academics, new to Wikipedia, often expect the same environment that they are used to in their academic careers, including the need to mount a spirited defence of their work.

It's academic, Jim, but not as we know it[edit]

Here, on Wikipedia, it is not their work at all. As soon as it is submitted it becomes public work, owned by everyone. This is the main area where the editor who hails from academe finds a challenge while they lack experience here. Wikipedians are, in general, poor at recognising this and hurl an alphabet soup of instructions and counter-instructions. WP:OWN, WP:CIVIL, WP:COI tend to be the early ones. Imagine being the recipient of this cannonade!

Academics are used to rallying colleagues to defend their work. Such people are accused of being meatpuppets. The air becomes heated.

Equally, academics are used to feeling as if they are inherently notable, perhaps important or authoritative. While one is notable in one's field, one may not pass the Wikipedia Academic Notability Test. Further, even when one passes that test, one has that same authority and importance here as the least of Wikipedia's users. Wikipedia's founder has the same status. Each Wikipedian, anonymous or logged in, is as important as the next one, and that is not important at all; that includes Wikipedia's appointed administrators and bureaucrats. Those simply have mops and buckets to clear up messes.

Why should we solve it?[edit]

Because Wikipedia is here to stay and it needs to become ever better. Part of becoming better is its ability to attract, or to disenchant, well qualified editors. Wikipedia needs to stop disenchanting good people. Every expert editor who is turned away is another naysayer against Wikipedia.

Wikipedia needs the top scholar as much as the hobbyist generalist, but its editors often do not welcome them in. And that is, in part, because they do not have the patience, perhaps the guidance, to help them to understand Wikipedia's arcane systems.

How can we solve it?[edit]

So how do editors work to solve this?

The key is to recognise what is happening. Every individual editor has a responsibility to Wikipedia to try to behave as well as they are able in order to keep Wikipedia's reputation as high as it can be.

Once recognised, it is important to attempt to build a decent bridge to the editor who is unused to the environment here, a bridge built on quiet and confident friendly help.

While Wikipedia has excellent discussions about the problems of the uninformed but relentless editor, and about the problems and benefits of having expert editors it does does not discuss in the latter a mechanism for making the expert editor part of the family. The essay Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia, first published in PLoS Comput Biol, was written by academic scientists to help their colleagues in their early encounters with the Wikipedia editing community, and may also be useful to other subject experts.

That essay encapsulates these ten rules:

  1. Register an account
  2. Learn the five pillars
  3. Be bold, but not reckless
  4. Know your audience
  5. Do not infringe copyright
  6. Cite, cite, cite
  7. Avoid shameless self-promotion
  8. Share your expertise, but don't argue from authority
  9. Write neutrally and with due weight
  10. Ask for help

None of them are arduous, and following them makes an expert's life far simpler. A useful eleventh is:

  • Write from a position and in a spirit of humility

These are fine for the expert to follow, but what of the editor who encounters an apparent expert making what appear to be edits in breach of policy. How should they behave? After all, edits that breach policy should be reverted or tempered in some manned to remove the policy infraction.

It comes down to using common sense

Check the contributions record[edit]

It is not to be checked for contentious matters. It is to be checked for context. Judgments based on the contributions record can influence the path taken with helping the editor. For example, a wide ranging subject catalogue is likely to indicate a hobbyist or generalist editor who needs guidance, not an expert in their field making expert edits. A narrow subject catalogue indicates, but not always reliably, that the editor is either an expert or is at least appearing to be one.

The former type of editor is outside the scope of this essay, but may benefit from some of the guidance in it. The latter type is the one to handle with respect for their presumed qualifications and sensitivities.

Seek to engage them in conversation[edit]

"Hey, you, you are making bad edits!" is not the approach most likely to win them over. "Please could we have a chat about the best way to edit Wikipedia?" could be a useful start, probably in their own talk page. And the conversation could then link directly to this essay if deemed appropriate, but a better link is to recommend Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia, noting that Wikipedia is a very strange place and can prove seriously challenging for those used to academic rigour.

Do not throw the baby out with the bath water[edit]

People tend not to edit a heavyweight article on Wikipedia with major content edits unless they have something to add. Academics and experts are used to having their opinions heard. When correct they gain reputation. The challenge is to separate the 'correct and gain reputation' element from the factual content. Wikipedia wants the factual content. Wikipedia does not want the part where people gain reputation, except as a collegiate editor.

Guide their edits to include correct reliably sourced material and show them how to use the citation mechanisms available to them. And Guide them to filter out the reputation enhancing fluff and clutter. They need to understand that reputations on Wikipedia are not to be the focus of any article, and that apparently reputation enhancing material will be removed on sight.

The objective is to retain all that is of value to Wikipedia in their edits and to show them that their contribution is also valued, that they are valued personally as Wikipedians, and that they have no academic reputation on Wikipedia because all editors are equal. That last statement about equality may be challenging for them to understand or accept.

If necessary, edit their edits[edit]

It isn't always necessary, and editors should not leap to the conclusion that experts and academics are unwelcome and that their edits must be nuked on sight. A counter elitist argument for exclusion is as bad as an elitist one for inclusion. When it is necessary, add the additional effort of making it politely and assertively clear on the article's talk page what has been done, and make a decision about leaving a more detailed and friendly explanation on the editor's talk page. This goes right back to engaging them in conversation.

There is nothing wrong with apologising to them. "I'm sorry. I had to change/revert/modify your edit to comply with rules you are not yet used to. You seem to have great expertise in [this topic] and Wikipedia will be improved with your expertise. To make this work we all need to work together within the Ten Simple Rules for Editing Wikipedia." Note the phase is a simple apology, "I'm sorry." It is not "I'm sorry, but..." which is a phrase which causes offence because it is not an apology. Equally phrases such as "With all due respect" should never form part of the conversation. The objective is to build a bridge, not to alienate. Thus an apology is appropriate, and it is given because it is appropriate to apologise for editing the edit of a new editor who does not yet understand Wikipedia's ways

If escalation is required[edit]

There are Wikipedia policy based escalation routes a-plenty. Ideally they are to be avoided. They tend to be useful as sanction invoking devices, not as educational devices. The first port of call should be to another experienced editor, someone who is ideally uninvolved, and who has expertise in engaging new editors and difficult editors in conversation and winning them round. A useful population of these can be found at the editor retention project whose member list is there and whose goals are reproduced below:


  1. Stay calm and maintain a professional demeanor. Be patient and remain courteous and civil.
  2. Avoid conflict, even if you feel know you are right. Give other editors the benefit of the doubt.
  3. Assume good faith toward your collaborating editors, if not their edits. Assuming good faith is not intended to be self-destructive, but to avoid conflict. Bear in mind the other editors' potential for aggression and possible retaliation of some kind, AGF but with a caveat.
  4. Ignore attacks. Not easily done, but a real timesaver. Attacks and counter-attacks are hazardous to your mental health. The best and most frequently offered administrative advice is to move on, and, if absolutely necessary, return the next day. Do not retaliate or in any way engage the other editor by YELLING. Avoid the written equivalent of "hand gestures". The best and most frequently offered advice is to go fishing.
  5. Don't take it personally. Editors make honest mistakes. Communicating our thoughts is not easily done on the Internet.
  6. Don't isolate your interpretation. There are most likely many other interpretations. What you read might NOT be what was meant.
  7. Don't think of editing as a competition. Don't retaliate. Don't resort to an editing form of road rage.
  8. Don't edit when angry or upset. Stay off the article and talk page in question. Never let your anger or frustration be the deciding factor in your behavior.
  9. Don't forget the Human Dimension of Wikipedia editing. Keep things in perspective. There is a real, living and breathing, sensitive human on the other side of the discussion.

Edit this section

Only use Wikipedia's formal escalation processes when attempts at building bridges and conversations have been exhausted.

Nothing is as urgent as you think[edit]

Wikipedia loses nothing. All is saved for posterity. So any edit, even a disruptive one, even a string of highly disruptive ones, can be rolled back to the last good version as a matter of a couple of mouse clicks. If your perception as an experienced editor is that the editor presumed to be an expert is vandalising an article, promoting their reputation or any or many other cardinal sins of Wikipedia, there is no value in becoming stressed. Stress begets stress, and your stress will be mirrored by an increased stress level from the editor you view as disruptive. Your calmness is likely to help them remain calm. So act peacefully in all your interactions with them and with their edits.

You may not be the best person to handle this[edit]

You may be, of course you may, but you must acknowledge that you may not be. Wikipedia comes first, not your pride in any ability you have to resolve disputes. Before plunging in, stop and consider who is likely to be the best to work with the expert editor to guide them into the Wikipedia way. Folk from the editor retention project tend to be good at this. At least ask one or more of them for advice.

Beware the new (2013) interaction notification system[edit]

Naming a problem user by their user name with a wikilink alerts them to the things you are saying about them. One should never speak ill of any editor, but a new editor under pressure may interpret your wise request for help with guiding their edits to be a witch hunt against them. The objective is to provide help, not to alienate them. Be wise about your usage of wikilinks to user names. Use them with pleasure and with care.

There, that's all done[edit]

Not even by just reading this essay is it all done. The task is to embrace the essay and to embrace the expert, the academic, and to help them enjoy contributing to this strange environment. Show them how this place is as rewarding as it is strange, and guide them in their learning how to work well here.

See also[edit]