Wikipedia:Red flags in edit summaries

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Anyone who patrols recent changes should watch out for red flags in edit summaries. This particular problem rarely comes from vandals; in fact, some vandals write very honest edit summaries, such as "blanking the page" or "replacing the page with crap." (Though sometimes automatic edit summaries will betray the intent of the vandal when the vandal writes a misleading edit summary; but as automatic edit summaries are done by a robot, vandals can figure out ways to mislead the robot as well).

This problem often comes from established users who want to push their own POVs. Also, there are well-meaning users who unintentionally write misleading edit summaries. Hence, the kinds of edit summaries discussed here should encourage a look at the actual edit regardless of whether or not they come from established users.

Let it be clear that I don't favor indiscriminate inclusionism. But I like indiscriminate deletionism even less, because it makes it harder for the community to have calm, thoughtful discussions as to what belongs and what doesn't. I think Wikipedia should contain:

  • Everything the common man would expect in a general reference work, and
  • Nothing the common man would only expect in a specialized reference work.

For more general advice on edit summaries, see WP:EDSUM.

Edit summary: "Deleting trivia"[edit]

On the face of it, that sounds good. "Deleting trivia." Deleting the unimportant, the inconsequential.

There are several problems with this, the first being that not everyone agrees on what constitutes trivia. When someone "deletes trivia," without giving any more specific explanation, it is possible that they're trying to skirt consensus and remove facts which most other editors agree belong and are relevant to the article in question.

Let's get some perspective on trivia. Originally, there was the trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric; and the quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium was supposed to be easier than the quadrivium, and eventually the word "trivial" came to mean, through semantic drift: "unimportant." What is unimportant? And to what is something unimportant. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the only thing that matters is survival. I'm not the only one who thinks Wikipedia should not be used for medical diagnosis, nor for operating a nuclear reactor. From this point of view, then

Everything in Wikipedia is trivial!

But surely also I'm not the only person who thinks Wikipedia should not be deleted, even if it can't be used for work in hospitals and nuclear power plants.

Instead of using a vague yet loaded word like "trivia," it would be more productive to expend just a few more keystrokes explaining what was actually done. For example, an article quotes a letter from Charles Darwin, and someone removes it. Instead of just putting "Deleting trivia" in the edit summary, it would be far better to put "Deleting long Darwin letter because it adds too much detail that is not directly relevant to this article."

Note that Wikipedia has a policy, WP:TRIVIA, which provides for ways to deal with information that might be relevant to the article but is currently presented as if it were a collection of random factoids.

A patroller should check first that the sletion section really was trivia, and second, that there was a better reason for users setting, such as it being irrelevant to the article. A common target for this are "In popular culture" sections. Again, Wikipedia policy provides content from such sections.

Edit summary: "Removing this until it can be verified/spellchecked/reworded, etc."[edit]

The exception here is for unverified information about living persons. Other than that, unverified and/or poorly spelled or worded content can and should remain in Wikipedia so that if someone better equipped to verify it, spell-check it or reword it comes along, they can do so without having to dig in the article history. Remember what WP:PRESERVE says: "Fix problems if you can, flag them if you can't." For most unverified information, use a fact tag. See Template:Fact for more information on flagging unverified content.

Edit summary: "Reverting, discuss on the talk page before making changes"[edit]

This is a red flag if the person writing this edit summary doesn't say anything about it on the talk page! No one owns Wikipedia articles, not even Jimbo Wales (see WP:OWN). If someone is going to demand that others discuss on the talk page before making any changes to an article, fairness demands that he too discuss it on the talk page. Also, he should remain open to what is said in the talk page. When others heed the request to "discuss on the talk page before making changes," it does not give veto authority to the person who requested this.

Edit summary: "Reverting vandalism"[edit]

Don't get me wrong, vandalism is still a problem on Wikipedia. But it is much more of a mild annoyance, and not a significant threat to Wikipedia's credibility anymore. There never was any disagreement that vandalism is bad and should be reverted, compared to the great disagreement over trivia. So an edit summary that just says "reverting vandalism" should be an even bigger red flag than "removing trivia." As a compromise between accurate edit summaries and denying vandals the satisfaction of acknowledgement, the developers have programmed Wikipedia to provide a default edit summary for undoing vandalism along the lines of:

"Undid revision 0123456789 by User:ABCDEFGH to version 0123456788 by User:Example_One"

Anti-vandalism bots give similar edit summaries, also avoiding use of the word "vandal" or "vandalism". To see that word used in an edit summary most likely signals an attempt at deception: such an editor is hoping that those who would question a removal of "trivia" wouldn't check up on a removal of "vandalism".

Edit summary: "Improving the article"[edit]

If an edit is not vandalism, then it should be an improvement to the article. Using the word "improving" therefore just wastes edit summary characters, and an edit summary only has a few more characters than a tweet. Also, one should suspect that there should be more to such an edit summary, along the lines of "to my liking, rather than to the misguided consensus."

Edit marked as minor with a large increase or decrease in size in kilobytes[edit]

This can happen either maliciously or innocently. A malicious use would be to include or delete a large chunk of text but pass it off as spelling corrections. But it can also happen innocently, such as when someone uses mass replace to expand abbreviations, or to create abbreviations. If you use mass replace in an edit, it wouldn't hurt for your edit summary to mention it!

Edit summary mentions tagging but doesn't say what the tags are[edit]

Robots can be exempted from saying in edit summaries what the tags that were applied are. But people should be held to a higher standard when it comes to tagging. By actually saying what the tags are in the edit summary, it shows other editors that you actually gave some thought to what the tags say and that they really do apply to the article. See WP:RESPTAG for advice on choosing the most specific tag for a given problem.

See Also[edit]