Wikipedia:Relationships with academic editors

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Within the halls of academia, professors are respected experts in their field who lecture to classes and publish in major journals. However, when professors edit Wikipedia, they will not be granted any special status due to their job title, publication record or Ph.D.

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, a professor with a PhD in her field, 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]

Anita L. Allen (born 1953)[1] is a professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In 2010, US President Barack Obama named Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is a Hastings Center Fellow.

Wikipedia is not an easy environment for an academic used to publishing original research in academic journals that are subject to rigorous peer review process.

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 their publication of papers in high-profile journals, holding a distinguished professorship at a university, or having earned advanced degrees (e.g., a PhD) from top universities.

The issue faced by academics and experts is that it is they who must bend their way of working to suit Wikipedia. Wikipedia will never bend to suit their normal way of working in academia, however strong their usual procedures and traditions, however advanced their knowledge, and however correct their approach is for an academic context.

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 to use reliable sources, 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.

Wikipediocracy, a website that critiques Wikipedia, states the following concerns about how experts are treated on Wikipedia: "Wikipedia disrespects and disregards scholars, experts, scientists, and others with special knowledge. Wikipedia specifically disregards authors with special knowledge, expertise, or credentials. There is no way for a real scholar to distinguish himself or herself from a random anonymous editor merely claiming scholarly credentials, and thus no claim of credentials is typically believed. Even when credentials are accepted, Wikipedia affords no special regard for expert editors contributing in their fields. This has driven most expert editors away from editing Wikipedia in their fields. Similarly, Wikipedia implements no controls that distinguish mature and educated editors from immature and uneducated ones."[2]

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

Academics are used to persuading colleagues to accept and further their work. On Wikipedia, such people are accused of being meatpuppets. The air becomes heated. 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!

While a professor may be respected and well-known in her field, she may not pass the Wikipedia Academic Notability Test. Further, even if a professor passes that test, she will have the same authority and importance here as any other Wikipedia editor. Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales has the same status: he is just a regular editor. 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 editors simply have authority to use "mops and buckets to clear up messes" and resolve disputes.

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 at least not repel, well qualified editors, including subject matter experts like university professors. Wikipedia needs to stop disenchanting expert editors. Every expert editor who is turned away is another naysayer against Wikipedia, and one less editor with expert knowledge in a subject.

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

How to work with academic editors[edit]

Professors like Alyson Bailes and Michael Brzoska are used to being invited to speak as experts at academic conferences. But when they edit Wikipedia, they have no greater "authority" than a generalist editor, and any statements they make will need to be backed up by a reliable published source.

If you are a generalist editor and you encounter an academic editor or professor, some of the traits that might identify this individual include having an obviously expert level of knowledge of the subject matter, but little knowledge of Wikipedia's requirements. For example:

  • A professor writing the introduction to their article in an academic journal does not need to cite sources for well-established scientific facts, since all of the readers will be professors in their field. But if they write the exact same sentence in a Wikipedia article—"XYZ particles are attracted to the neutron particles by the "fooian" subatomic force"—it will need a citation to a reliable source.
  • A social historian who writes from a very well-defined position (e.g. a queer theory perspective) may be used to writing entire academic articles or even entire books from that viewpoint. However, on Wikipedia, they must accept that this one viewpoint on a historical matter can only be one of a number of viewpoints in a Wikipedia article, to ensure a neutral point of view.
  • A psychology professor who has developed a number of original theories that have gone on to be published in peer-reviewed journals and written about in academic textbooks may want to let the world know about their new theory on childhood development by writing about it in a Wikipedia article. No editor, not even a well-published professor, can add text about an original theory that has not been published already in a reliable, independent source in the outside world. They need to have their theory published first in an independent journal or book, and only then can this information be added to Wikipedia. (And then, ideally, someone other than the professor should add the information about the professor's theory, because the professor-editor themselves would be in conflict of interest to add text about their own work).

You should let academic editors know that you respect their expert knowledge of the subject matter and their contribution to the project, while gently and civilly making them aware of the Wikipedia "alphabet soup": WP:OR, WP:RS, WP:NPOV, etc. in everyday language.

How can we solve it?[edit]

So how do generalist 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 and retain editors, including professors and research experts.

Once an editor is recognised as a subject matter expert, and quite possibly a professor, it is important to attempt to build a decent bridge to the academic editor who is unused to the environment here, a bridge built on quiet, confident and 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 not discuss in the latter a mechanism for making the expert academic 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 for professors who want to edit:

  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 of humility 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 she behave? After all, edits that breach policy should be reverted or tempered in some manner to remove the policy infraction.

It comes down to using common sense

Check the contributions record[edit]

Checking a user's contribution record has to be done with care (see WP:Wikihounding for what type of checking crosses the line). It is not to be checked for contentious matters. It is to be checked to get a sense of context. Judgments based on the contribution record of an editor can influence the path taken with helping the editor. For example, an editor working on a wide-ranging subject catalogue, from sports to politics and geography to beer is likely a hobbyist or generalist editor who needs guidance, not a professor making edits in her field of expertise. A narrow subject catalogue, especially a precise area of focus on a highly technical or complex topic, suggests that the editor is either an expert or a highly qualified amateur.

Highly qualified amateurs, who have a great deal of expertise in a subject, yet are not professors or recognized experts in this field, are outside the scope of this essay, but may benefit from some of the guidance in it. When dealing with a professor or academic expert, handle them 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 good ways 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 for new editors and can seem strange 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 of individual editors on Wikipedia are not to be the focus of any article, and that apparently reputation-enhancing material will be removed.[clarification needed]

The objective is to retain all that is of value to Wikipedia in professors' edits and to show them that their contribution is also valued, that they are valued 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, especially if they hold a distinguished chair or professorship in a major university.

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 modify your edit to comply with rules you may not be 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 phrase 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 in a dispute or article, 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 when you 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.
  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.
  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 many interpretations other than yours. What you read might NOT be what was meant.
  7. Don't think of editing as a competition. WE are cohorts, collaborating to improve our thing.
  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 when an edit is reverted, even if ten paragraphs of well-cited text are deleted. All is saved for posterity in the "History" tab. 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 the academic editor to 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 as a project with the goal of building a great encyclopedia comes first, not your pride in any perceived 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 user by their user name on an article Talk page or other location on Wikipedia 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...or is it?[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]

  1. ^ date & year of birth, full name according to LCNAF CIP data
  2. ^ http://wikipediocracy.com/2015/08/16/a-compendium-of-wikipedia-criticism/