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This proposal outlines the structure of an Editorial Council.
- 1 What is the Editorial Council?
- 2 Why?
- 3 Process
- 4 Composition
- 5 Common concerns
- 6 An example
- 7 Conclusion
What is the Editorial Council?
The Editorial Council is a panel consisting of seven editors. The council's mission is to resolve content disputes and act as an arbiter in such cases. The council's purpose is not to determine comma placement or paragraph order in articles. Nor is every edit war's underlying cause worth examining. The focus of the council would be on "big picture" content issues. These would include:
- Long-standing content issues that remain unresolved.
- Content issues that have a broad effect on the encyclopedia.
- Nationalism-based content issues that are continued sources of disruption.
It is not the role of the council to examine disputes between specific users or groups of users. User conduct is entirely outside the scope of the council and should, as always, be directed to the Arbitration Committee. This does not prevent the council from examining the underlying causes of a specific user conduct case, but it does limit their assessments to purely editorial matters.
Almost every editor's first question upon reading this proposal will be "Why do we need this?" Allow me to cover a few reasons.
- The mechanisms for resolving content disputes are shoddy, ill-formed and often ad hoc. Currently many of the "resolved" disputes are not resolved at all. Most often, a small group of editors will claim victory and lock out other editors in the process. Not only does this run counter to the spirit of consensus-building, but it also freezes out future editors from re-evaluating the consensus. While this isn't a pandemic on Wikipedia, it is common enough to be a serious problem.
- Wikipedia's community needs to distinguish between content disputes and conduct disputes.
- A content dispute is a dispute about content. The placement of paragraphs, the role and reliability of sources, the usage of images, the readability of the text...these are all debates between editors that occur a hundred times every day on the encyclopedia. However, when two or more editors find themselves unable to reach a common ground in a discussion it morphs into...
- ...a conduct dispute, in which multiple editors find themselves unable to reach common ground. Usually one editor will surrender to the other, but in some instances these can morph into the complex and multi-faceted edit wars we all know and hate. If they manage to snag some administrators in the mix, the result can be severely disruptive to the encyclopedia.
- Almost all conduct disputes start out as content disputes. The community's most infamous cases of conduct originated from content disputes. The lack of a clear and simple method to resolve those content issues forces two choices: either an editor can edit war and disrupt the encyclopedia, or the editor can give up. While the latter doesn't sound as bad, it can be a chilling effect to future discussion. By providing a mechanism for resolving content disputes, we can limit many conduct disputes before they grow into the multi-headed monsters ArbCom stares down.
- Consensus is not always obvious for complex issues. In our early days, Wikipedia was smaller both in community size and encyclopedia size. Not only were editors far simpler to gather for discussion, but Wikipedia also faced fewer issues of the complex nature that we see so often these days. Drive-by consensus, in which editors only leave a Support or Oppose comment in a content dispute before disappearing from the topic forever, has also shortchanged editors on both sides who have evaluated the issue in-depth.
- The Arbitration Committee's refusal to make rulings on content makes an Editorial Council necessary. Wikipedia and the community behind it needs an Editorial Council to tackle content disputes. ArbCom works well when tackling users who can't play well with others, but it overlooks the reason the editors were fighting in the first place. Ignoring the causes behind disruption will only lead to more disruption. The mediation and arbitration mechanisms don't have the powers to handle content disputes, so a new and separate mechanism is required. The Editorial Council is that solution.
The Editorial Council process would be as follows:
- First, an editor petitions the Editorial Council to assess a content dispute. If three members of the council agree to discuss the issue, it comes before the full council.
- Second, editors are given a period of time in which they can comment about the case. Ideally editors would explain their positions, and support them by either providing independent factual sources to back their arguments and/or citing established Wikipedia policy or consensus (especially fundamental ones such as WP:NPOV, WP:RELIABLE and WP:OR).
- Third, the council discusses and votes on its findings. These findings are not carved in stone or binding policy under which editors can be blocked. Most importantly, they would not overturn or ignore consensus. Instead, they should be used as a guide to existing consensus and as a road map for future discussions.
Appeals may be brought up at anytime, providing there is sufficient new evidence that could alter the outcome.
The council would consist of nine editors. All nine members of the council would be elected by two rounds of popular vote. Ideally, members would be selected for their neutrality, fair-mindedness and ability to hear both sides of an argument. The elections would be carried out concurrently with the Arbitration Committee elections.
All terms are for one year. There are no term limits. Editors may not sit simultaneously on the Arbitration Committee and the Editorial Council.
Below I will attempt to explain some of the most common concerns to the establishment of an Editorial Council.
Isn't this a Foundation issue?
I assume you refer to Foundation issues, which states that some issues are beyond debate. One of these inviolable planks of Wikipedia states that "the 'wiki process' [is] the decision mechanism on content." Of course, this refers to WP:CONSENSUS. Concerns have been voiced that giving seven editors, no matter how highly regarded they may be, should not have such broad control over Wikipedia's content. Furthermore, it has been voiced that the establishment of an Editorial Council is a violation of the wiki process. While these are reasonable concerns, they do not apply to the creation of an Editorial Council.
First, to the critical Foundation issue concern. Since an Editorial Council would neither create new consensus nor destroy or change existing consensus, it poses absolutely no threat to the wiki process. Unless either the Board of Trustees or Jimmy Wales indicates that in their opinion an Editorial Council as proposed does go against the Foundation issues, it shouldn't be a concern in discussing the council's merits and drawbacks.
Where does this leave the community?
The creation of an Editorial Council would greatly benefit the community of editors. The presence of an Editorial Council would allow for much more productive discussions. It would give the community something to fall back on should discussions grow stagnant or repetitive, allowing for closure instead of confusion. The community would also be assisted by knowing that once all the points and made and all the variables considered in a discussion, there's a body that's capable of taking all the Lego-like pieces of the discussion and assembling them into a consensus from which the editors can work.
This is a change to how our community operates. Of that there is no doubt. While I will leave to the Wikihistorians just how big of a change it is, it will change the way we approach content disputes on Wikipedia. But that isn't a bad thing. It's true, we've been able to run amok for the past seven years with little of the editorial oversight that other encyclopedias benefit from. And it's true, a lot of good has come from that chaos. Nobody's asking anyone to forget, but we have to look to the future. Rather than being seen as an intrusion into community discussion, it should be seen as a natural growth and progression of it.
Where does this leave the Arbitration Committee?
Exactly where it is. The Arbitration Committee has previously stated that it does not rule on content disputes, only conduct disputes. There would be no overlap in roles and responsibilities between the two groups. Simultaneously holding the elections of both bodies is a simple matter of convenience.
Isn't this just another layer of bureaucracy?
You know, there's this tendency to treat Wikipedia as if we're a sovereign nation. As if Wikipedia had a king, a parliament and a nobility. But that's not true. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia, not the community. And while it's true that we make our own laws and our own justice, we are not a civilization.
And because we are not a civilization, we should not look at an Editorial Council as a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy's negative connotations in Western society often obfuscate the issue. An Editorial Council would benefit the encyclopedia's development. An Editorial Council would benefit the community's work towards that goal. Those are the only conditions that matter.
What about the potential for bias?
Wikipedia's NPOV policy would obviously be critical in every decision made by the council. It is naive to assume that the community would not self-correct and block the seating of unsuitable candidates during the elections.
Many have noted the existence of similar mechanisms that may fulfill the proposed role of the Editorial Council.
- Wikipedia:Dispute resolution is, despite the name, explicitly for conduct not content. Note the first line, "This policy describes what you can do when you have a dispute with another editor."
- Wikipedia:Requests for comment is unwieldy and lacks focus. It also often worsens complex content issues by bringing in drive-by commentators.
- Wikipedia:Third opinion is for minor disputes. It is also unsuitable for complex content issues.
- Wikipedia:Mediation is oriented towards both conduct disputes and content disputes. This would be a suitable first step for the content dispute process as a way to resolve minor content issues. Should mediations fail or be beyond the ability of a single mediator to resolve, they can be recommended to the Editorial Council.
While these mechanisms may have a role in handling small to mid-level content disputes, they are ill-suited for the kind of complex large-scale disputes that the Editorial Council is designed for.
Binding versus non-binding
Concerns have been raised over whether the findings of the Editorial Council would be binding or non-binding. This is an unwieldy zero-sum comparison, especially when this council would need to be able to be both flexible and capable of operating in the grey areas between black and white.
This council should not and cannot rule by fiat. This body is not meant to issue edicts and instructions. Instead, the Editorial Council should rely on soft power and peer pressure to support its findings. My hope is that the community would recognize the value of input by a body staffed by its most talented editors, especially a body whose sole interest is improving the encyclopedia. My belief is that the community would be overjoyed to be able to use the moderate voice of the council to isolate and flush out extreme POV warriors on either side of a dispute. Our goal should be for the community and the council, both listening to one another and working together, to establish a moderate and common path along which we can all improve the encyclopedia.
Disclaimer: This should not be interpreted as an actual case. Don't let its outcome decide your support or opposition.
- A user, whom we'll call "Cyanide Cocktails", is sick and tired of constantly going through and seeing the same arguments in the Burma/Myanmar naming dispute. He sees that the community has just approved and established an Editorial Council.
- Cyanide Cocktails posts on the "Requests for Editorial Review" page. He posts a summary of the dispute, taking special care to focus on the arguments being made instead of the people making them.
- One of the members of the Editorial Council, whom we'll call "Gregory House", votes to support hearing the case. His fellow council members Scooby-Doo, Admiral Ackbar, Dana Scully, Reed Richards, Zeus and Larry Sanger all concur and vote to hear the case as well. They know how much of an impact this case will have, and they know the anguish it's caused many a good editor.
- For the next week, various members of the community submit reasons what they think "Southeast Asian Country-X", or "SAC-X", should be named. The council members refrain from commenting on the community submissions, instead waiting until next week when Deliberations begin.
- Captain Ahab, who was behind changing it to Burma in mid-September 2007, constantly hammers home the illegitimacy of the government. He cites human rights abuses and notes that Aung San Suu Kyi, the President-elect and prisoner of conscience, has asked the international community to call her homeland Burma.
- Captain Crunch notes that the United Nations refers to SAC-X as Myanmar. Since the UN is the standard for what is and isn't a country, Crunch advocates using their name as the benchmark.
- Captain Hook provides sources that show that the English-speaking international community has backed Burma. Hook cites that every English-speaking government refers to SAC-X as Burma. Thus, Hook argues, since we are an English-speaking encyclopedia, we should use their standard and call it Burma.
- Captain Picard notes that, from a historian's perspective, one could reasonably call Burma and Myanmar two separate countries. Picard recommends making Burma about SAC-X pre-coup and Myanmar about SAC-X post-coup.
- Captain Jack Sparrow stridently protests anything but Myanmar. Sparrow explains that for better or for worse, the junta is in charge and changing the article's name won't change that. He goes on to say that it would set a dangerous precedent to not call Myanmar by its "official" name.
- Captain Jack Harkness, in a rebuttal to Sparrow, notes that Wikipedia is not bound by what a junta says. Furthermore, he adds, we already don't call most countries by what they call themselves, pointing out People's Republic of China as a perfect example.
- Finally, Captain Kangaroo blames the whole dispute on Sparrow and Harkness and urges the council to sanction them. The council reminds Kangaroo that it does not have that power, and suggests that he go to ArbCom instead.
- Once the week is over and the community has provided reams of sources, data and input for all sides of the dispute, the council begins publicly discussing the matter on Wikipedia:Requests for Editorial Review/Burmyanmar/Deliberation. When Captain Crunch tries to respond to one of the council member's comments, he is admonished by House, who reminds the captain that the Deliberation area is for council discussion only.
- One of the clerks, R2-D2, provides a full list of links to all previous discussions on the Burma/Myanmar naming dispute. This allows the council to evaluate the changes and shifts in consensus over the years.
- After a week of public discussion, the council spends three days voting on findings. The findings eventually come out as follows:
- The council determines that consensus currently favors the name Burma. The finding passes on a 5-2 vote, with Zeus and House dissenting. Zeus favored Myanmar, while House favored Picard's two-country compromise.
- The council notes that while consensus has not always favored Burma, and that the first major change came during the Saffron Revolution. The finding passes unanimously.
- The council also determines that since the article's name has been Burma for a year, and since all the articles currently refer to it as such, it would not be worth the time and effort to scrub the entire encyclopedia to change it back to Myanmar. The finding passes on a 6-1 vote, with only House dissenting. House notes in his dissent that a bot could easily move everything back.
- The council notes that Burma/Myanmar was a unique case, and because of extenuating circumstances and current event, should not be treated as precedent for other country name cases. This passes unanimously.
- Finally, the council makes a special note to address Captain Picard's two-country compromise. Since the community has not made up its mind about the two-country compromise, it would be inappropriate for the council to implement the compromise itself since it would be contrary to the prevailing one-country consensus. Instead, it leaves that up to the community for further discussion and debate. This passes unanimously.
I hope this cleans up any confusion about the actual process. I've tried not to go into too much detail, but I hope this goes into enough to make the process clear to understand.