Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/March 2013/Interview

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The Former Yugoslavia

In our latest interview, the Bugle continues its "Article writer's guide" series detailing the nuances behind certain categories of Wikipedia articles. We'll bring you answers from some of the foremost Wikipedia writers in the areas we examine, in the hope that their advice may help you to enter these areas and find success. This month we look at the Former Yugoslavia. Don't forget that if you have a good topic for a future Bugle edition, please add it on our newsletter's main talk page.

Thank you for agreeing to answer some of our questions. What draws you to Wikipedia's articles on the Former Yugoslavia?
  • Peacemaker67: I served there in the 90's with the United Nations then NATO, and soon began to wonder about how they had all got to the dark place I was briefly sharing with them. It was so completely alien to my experience growing up in Australia. And the most recent prior conflict was WWII, so I sort of backtracked to that point and became fascinated with the complexity of how WWII unfolded in that part of the world.
  • Prioryman: I studied the history of the western Balkans at university. I later visited the region during the Croatian and Bosnian wars (and visited Dubrovnik a few months after the end of the 1991–92 siege). A few years after that, I got involved in organising military liaisons with the countries of the region. I had an academic, professional and personal interest in that part of the world, so it was natural for me to get involved in editing articles on the topic when I started contributing to Wikipedia in 2003.
  • Joy: I come from Croatia, so it's basically writing about what I know. When I look back at some of my first edits, sadly they overwhelmingly indicate that what initially drew me to edit those articles were egregious NPOV issues that I was trying to fix. These days the situation is considerably better, although it still needs a lot of work.

How did you come to choose some of the articles you've written?
  • Peacemaker67: It was pretty organic really. After working on the Chetniks article for a while, I realised that I needed a lot more WP skills and knowledge to tackle such a huge topic, so I started with a biography of a mid-level Chetnik commander called (Pavle Đurišić) and was very fortunate to quickly strike up a good collaborative arrangement on that article with an experienced editor (User:PRODUCER), who also has the language skills I lack (Serbo-Croatian, German and/or Italian are pretty important). We also collaborated with success on another Chetnik biography, Dobroslav Jevđević. About the same time I thought I'd tackle some of the key Axis units that fought the Yugoslav Partisans so I branched out on my own to explore the locally-recruited Waffen SS divisions, and managed to get 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian) (a Muslim SS unit) to FA as an essentially solo project. PRODUCER and I have now started a fledgling special project called Operation Bora to organise and track the progress of our work on articles relating to WWII in Yugoslavia. We are hoping to gather together some like-minded editors and eventually establish it as a formal joint special project between WP:MILHIST and WP:Yugoslavia.
  • Prioryman: Mostly randomly, to be honest! For the most part, it was just whatever attracted my interest. Battle of Vukovar was the exception. I wanted to write an article to mark the 20th anniversary of the Croatian War but rather than write about the war in its entirety, I chose an episode that I felt captured the origins, savagery and ultimately the pointlessness of the conflict. The article appeared as Today's Featured Article on 18 November 2011, 20 years to the day after the city fell to the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). The JNA won the battle but only succeeded in acquiring a completely destroyed town and ultimately lost the war. Today the town is back in Croatian hands after being handed back peacefully. Nobody won, in the end, and both sides now have to live with the physical, political and emotional legacy of the battle; to me, that outcome sums up the utter waste that the Yugoslav Wars represented.
  • Joy: Well, by clicking on hyperlinks :) I prefer to spend my time mostly in the article space (I'm also an administrator), but I don't have any specific method of choosing articles to start or to contribute to. Sometimes it's a toponym, sometimes it's a lead section of a biography, sometimes it's a detail in a description of a historical period. Writing about the Battle of Vukovar came naturally, because, well, my father was 15 km away from there throughout that time. Having a personal connection to topics helps keep one motivated, but the basic editing principle must always remain the same: cover every topic with the same level of level-headedness (heh).

Generally speaking, what should be covered in the particular subjects you've chosen to write about? How do you structure your articles?
  • Peacemaker67: In biographical articles I try to ensure that everything is covered, warts and all, as there is a tendency towards skipping or whitewashing the embarrassing or inconvenient aspects of important or iconic individuals in this part of the world, a tendency which many sources say has got worse, not better, since the death of Tito in 1980 and even since the wars in the 90's. What we would now describe as war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed by all sides in WWII and its immediate aftermath, and it is important that an encyclopaedia such as Wikipedia includes balanced coverage of them all. I tend to take a chronological approach to all articles, identifying each section with a theme relevant to that time period.
  • Joy: Everything should be covered; it's not uncommon that people only write about talking points or controversial aspects, even in good faith, but still losing sight of the fact that this is an encyclopedia. I'm also generally an advocate of chronological ordering, because it appears to help keep things inherently neutral and helps avoid losing track of context.
  • Prioryman: I don't think there's a hard and fast rule about structuring articles. Chronological ordering works for articles such as Battle of Vukovar simply because such articles lend themselves to a narrative approach; events have a beginning, middle and end. Other topics are better approached in a more thematic fashion, as in the case of one of my non-Yugoslav articles, Street House Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Clearly, being comprehensive is a good thing and one should seek to tackle all sides of a subject, but I think one should never lose sight of the human element. I prefer to include brief eyewitness accounts and reactions in my articles, wherever possible - in the case of the Battle of Vukovar, I included eyewitness statements from both sides as well as observers to give an impression of what the events described in the article meant to those who experienced them first-hand.

What kinds of sources do you recommend using?
  • Peacemaker67: I recommend using university press titles as the basis for articles, and generally tend to steer clear of locally published material unless the author is recognised internationally. I do this to avoid (excuse the pun) partisan authors and even scholars from the former Yugoslavia. Some of the key scholars on the region and time period (and the university press that published them) are Walter Roberts (Duke), Matteo Milazzo (Johns Hopkins), Jozo Tomasevich (Stanford), Stevan K. Pavlowitch (Columbia), Marko Attila Hoare (Oxford), Sabrina Ramet (Indiana) and Tim Judah (Yale). I also have a good look at Google Scholar and request access to relevant scholarly articles through WP:REX.
  • Joy: Those written by people without an axe to grind. No prejudice to the geographical origin - there is a modicum of reliable authors from the former Yugoslavia without one, much like there is a modicum of reliable authors in general that wrote about former Yugoslavia.
  • Prioryman: Sourcing can be tricky when it comes to controversial recent history such as the Yugoslav wars. I recall that Peter Carrington once said that he had never met such terrible liars in his life as the people of the Balkans, which was rather unfairly sweeping, but it was certainly true that all sides in the conflict – including Western politicians – were systematically dishonest about what was going on. The problem is only exacerbated by the ideological overlay that some in the West brought to their analyses of the situation, from Norman Stone seeing the conflict as a battle against neo-communist tyranny to Noam Chomsky viewing it as a struggle against Western imperialism. Fortunately some journalists and academics have done some really good work in trying to ferret out the truth; I would echo what Peacemaker67 and Joy have said and endorse the authors they mention.

Have you found it easy to obtain online sources? What about free images?
  • Peacemaker67: I love Google Books and Google Scholar, although I have a pretty reasonable hard copy library at home and easy access to a comprehensive public library nearby. Images are a bit of a nightmare, there are heaps online but finding publication details is very difficult and I often end up having to use a non-free justification just to get a portrait for an infobox. The German Federal Archives [1] has some useful free images, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum [2] is also good for free pictures.
  • Prioryman: Google Books really is a lifesaver. If only I'd been able to use it while doing my university degree! (Sadly that was pre-Internet.) I use it in two ways: first as a direct source of information, and second as a finders' guide to enable me to track down sources in libraries. Images are something of a paradox, due to the copyright restraints Wikipedia imposes. A larger number of images are available for more recent topics, but they are also more likely to be in copyright. Older images are harder to find but easier to use. I've sometimes got around this problem by persuading photographers on Flickr to let Wikipedia use their images. One photographer kindly contributed several images that he took only 10 days after the end of the Battle of Vukovar, such as this one.
  • Joy: There's an online source access program on the English Wikipedia that I keep thinking I should get myself into, but every year when they renew it and I go to have a look, I see that it involves some sort of an obstacle that deters me. Google Books is a poor man's library - it has a smattering of relevant local sources but they're not a really quality sample; I often fear I'm quoting a dubious author that just so happens to have said something relevant and it just so happens to be covered. That goes both for local and English-language sources. BTW on the topic of former Yugoslav images, have a look at the interesting development at WT:HRV#Copyright rules on photos in Yugoslavia.

Have you experienced any difficulties accessing sources in languages other than English? If so, what approaches have you used to work around this issue?
  • Peacemaker67: I have very scratchy German and Serbo-Croat and no Italian, so I generally use Google Translate (per Prioryman below) to identify a source I think might be useful, then ask other editors with the requisite language skills for a hand. NB: Google Translate of German generally results in gibberish... I have been very fortunate to have established a good collaborative arrangement with User:PRODUCER who has native language skills I lack, and can locate news articles and has an understanding of the reliability of local news sources. In some cases it is very hard to find material in English on the early lives of some biographical subjects except in the local lingo.
  • Prioryman: Google Translate is your friend. To be honest, I try to use non-English sources fairly sparingly. If we're writing for an English-speaking audience, it makes sense to use English-language sources. I would hope, ideally, that people reading my articles would be sufficiently interested to want to go on and read the books and other sources that I've cited.
  • Joy: The last few times I had such a problem it was Italian and Russian, I think. Both times {{better source}} was the most pertinent solution; I can envisage a contrary situation, but it's not really likely.

Biases exist in many forms -- how have you dealt with biases in sources?
  • Peacemaker67: I think that by using a wide range of reliable sources any tendency towards bias tends to be cancelled out. One of the reasons I tend to steer clear of "locally published but not internationally recognised" authors/scholars is because they are more likely to have been brought up in an educational and cultural system that presents "one side of the story" and that can make it difficult for them to overcome a tendency towards bias against "the Other". Some can be used with care, and many can be used for facts, but it is often necessary to attribute them inline when presenting their analysis.
  • Prioryman: This is one of the most difficult issues to deal with in writing history. The first and most important thing is to recognise that all sources are biased in one way or another – not necesarily in an overtly propagandistic fashion, but quite often simply because of cultural and political assumptions that may be quite unconscious on the author's part (as Peacemaker67 rightly highlights). One also has to recognise where bias may come from. Is the source primary or secondary? Who is the author? What is the author's expertise? How does the source fit into the author's body of work? What is the purpose of the source? When was it published and in what context? Is there supporting evidence from other sources? Do the author's views fit into the mainstream of opinion? And so on.
  • Joy: In addition to the things others have already mentioned, I'd like to point out a very common problem that we have in the topic area which is biased or just shoddy news reporting being used as references. Publications in former Yugoslavia that are reasonably respectable have been known to publish various kinds of problematic articles, particularly in their online editions. They can't and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but I do think it's important to invite everyone to click through and try and verify the reliability of each individual reference.

How do you deal with with language barriers in both the subject and the sources about it (e.g. a non-English source)?
  • Peacemaker67: I rely heavily on fellow editor(s) with the language skills. There are a lot of editors that advertise their language skills and will help you out if only you ask. In this respect I'm very lucky to have struck up a good working arrangement with PRODUCER.
  • Prioryman: I try to rely on my own resources wherever possible, using tools such as Google Translate, but have also occasionally asked other editors to help out with clarifying issues.
  • Joy: In case of Croatian people and sources, inherently. :) In practice I found that it's generally easy for myself to smell a rat, be it a Croatian, Serbian, or even an English source. If anything about the source looks suboptimal, tag it or lose it, because the bar on a global encyclopedia should already be at a level that excludes any such thing.

What are the most common issues you strike when submitting articles on the Former Yugoslavia to formal review?
  • Peacemaker67: Explaining the reliability of a given foreign language source (newspaper articles are almost always questioned), the paucity of information on the early lives of many of the biographical subjects, and achieving a balance between providing sufficient context for the subject and making the Background section too detailed and complex for the casual reader. Image copyright issues are also a perennial problem.
  • Prioryman: Featured article candidate reviews can be very gruelling. The FAC for Battle of Vukovar was nearly as long as the article itself! Many of the issues raised at FAC are not actually all that substantive, for instance relatively trivial things such as making sure that quotations are properly referenced, formatting the references correctly and ensuring that any issues with image licenses are resolved. I'd advise submitters to pay close attention to such things before nominating an article for review, as it will save time later. Don't be too worried if reviewers come back with lots of issues. They are genuinely trying to help and will offer you advice if you get stuck with something.
  • Joy: My experience with submitting articles for review is limited, but I have to say I concur that most of the time the problem is copyediting. Which isn't a bad thing - indeed the people who I've seen do (pre-)review copyedits have been largely very helpful. But I often felt we needed a more in-depth review. Maybe it's just me. Again, I haven't spent much time on this and I'm hardly in a position to judge others on something I don't do myself.

Are there any other points you'd like to raise that we haven't covered in this interview, or parting advice that you'd like to offer?
  • Peacemaker67: I think establishing a collaborative partnership with one or more like-minded editors in developing articles is something that is not seen often enough. Many editors "go it alone", but I have found that a lot of synergies can be achieved by cooperating with like-minded people. It is one of the inherent strengths of Wikipedia and one of the aspects of the encyclopaedia that I enjoy the most. I'd also like to encourage all MILHIST editors to get involved in reviewing, even if initially it is just looking at articles in Category:Unassessed military history articles. It helps you to get an understanding of the B class criteria and tightens up your own work. Lastly, if you're not enjoying yourself, you're not doing it right!
  • Prioryman: Writing featured content isn't an easy process. It requires a lot of effort and commitment, and a willingness to accept constructive criticism. If there's one thing I'd recommend, be as self-critical of your own content as you can be. Review what you've written, not just once but several times, ask yourself if it's as clear as it should be and make sure you're familiar with the requirements for featured articles. Don't be afraid to ask others for advice. This is, after all, a collaborative project and editors who approach Wikipedia in that spirit will get the most out of it.
  • Joy: In contrast with others, I'd like to invite people to help some of our articles of lower class. Add a reference to make an unreferenced section or a stub verifiable; describe a missing aspect of a story; summarize the article in its lead section properly; do some categorization. So many of the better articles will build a web of links, but the overall reader experience will leave much to be desired if they're just an oasis in a desert, so to speak.
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Great interview, I like knowing the backgrounds of the writers. Keep it up, guys. - Dank (push to talk) 12:54, 26 March 2013 (UTC)

Thanks Dan. It was nice to be asked given I've not been around here long. Regards, Peacemaker67 (send... over) 01:25, 14 April 2013 (UTC)