How Wikipedia Works/Chapter 4
- Understanding and Evaluating an Article
Once you've found the content you're looking for, the next thing you need to know is what you're looking at. With an understanding of namespaces and content types in Wikipedia, you can easily tell whether you're looking at an article, a discussion page, a community page, or a user page; and once you know how to search and browse the site, finding articles on your topic is simple. The next step is assessing an article's quality.
Understanding how to read all the components of an article—from its edit history to its discussion pages—is key for skilled and sensible reading of Wikipedia. Experienced editors and readers use many tricks to quickly evaluate pages and understand their state. It's a matter of knowing where to look and determining which clues are most significant.
In this chapter, we'll identify the different parts of a typical article and discuss what each part can tell you. We'll then list some detailed questions to ask when critically evaluating an article. Throughout this chapter, as we describe how articles are put together, we'll list Clues—points to pick up on for quality evaluation. If you're in a hurry, we've summarized our best clues at the end of the chapter. Note
In this discussion of the look and feel of Wikipedia, we'll be talking about viewing pages with the default configuration, the Monobook skin. Skins are customizable, and there are a variety to choose from; for more, see "Setting Your Preferences" on Section 1.1.6, “Creating the Account”.
Anatomy of an ArticleEdit
Every editable page on Wikipedia is made up of three related parts: the text of the page or article, the page history, and a separate discussion page. The tabs that are visible at the top of (almost) any page are your entry points to these components. There are four tabs if you are logged out and six if you are logged in.
Assuming you're logged in, the tabs you'll see are shown in Figure 4.1, “The tabs at the top of a Wikipedia page”: Article, Discussion, Edit This Page, History, Move, and Watch.
- The Article tab shows you the text of the article you are viewing; this is the default view when you go to a page and the view you'll want to return to after exploring other components. The title of this tab changes across namespaces; for instance, it displays as Project Page if you're looking at a page in the Wikipedia namespace, and User Page if you're looking at a page in the User namespace.
- The Discussion tab shows you the discussion or talk page for that article; this is a separate page dedicated to discussion of the page's content.
Figure 4.1. The tabs at the top of a Wikipedia page
- Note: The terms talk page and discussion page are used somewhat interchangeably. Although the tab intended for discussion of an article is labeled Discussion, it leads to a page located in the Talk namespace. Discussion pages attached to user pages, which are intended for conversation between editors, are called talk pages as well—though, to be pedantic, they are user talk pages in the User talk namespace.
- The Edit This Page tab allows you to edit whatever page you are currently viewing. Clicking the tab opens up an edit window, where you can modify the text of the page.
- The History tab shows you the edit history of the page you are viewing.
- The Move tab moves the page to a new title. Leave this advanced operation alone for now, until you've had a chance to read Chapter 8, Make and Mend Wikipedia's Web.
- The Watch tab adds the article you're currently viewing to your own personal watchlist. (If you are already watching an article, the tab will display Unwatch instead and clicking it will remove an article from your watchlist.)
In this chapter, we'll cover articles as a whole along with talk pages and history pages. Editing is discussed in Part II, from Chapter 5, Basic Editing onward, and then we'll return to watchlists in Chapter 11, Becoming a Wikipedian.
- Absent Tabs: There are some exceptions that apply to the tabs you can view on a particular page. Protected pages, for instance, won't display an Edit tab, but will instead display a View Source tab that shows the wikisource of an article but doesn't allow you to edit it. Pages in the Special namespace, which are not editable, don't display any of these tabs. If you aren't logged in, the Move and Watch tabs are not available.
The Article TextEdit
Did you ever wonder what makes Wikipedia articles seem so standardized? The conventional way of writing a Wikipedia article combines a number of recognizable features, which will generally appear as an article matures. In this section, we'll review the different parts that you may encounter in an article. Clue: All articles don't have to have all of these parts, but if you see an article without any of them—or if the text appears unformatted—chances are good the article was added by an inexperienced editor.
Directly underneath the page tabs, you'll see the title of the page you're viewing in large bold type, followed by a line and the words From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. This is where the editable portion of the page starts.
Like trailers before a feature film, messages may appear in italics at the beginning of an article. These messages are not part of the article, but are a rubric properly called a hatnote. Hatnotes point you toward disambiguation pages or other articles that might be confused with the one you are viewing; for example, For the medical term see rigor (medicine) occurs at the top of rigour. You may also see one or more warning messages in brightly colored boxes at the beginning of articles; for instance, warning you that this article requires attention from an expert or the neutrality of this article is disputed. Other messages may simply note that some kind of cleanup needs to happen on the article. These messages serve two purposes: They alert the reader to problems, and they let editors know that "something needs to be done here." They are produced with templates (see a list at Wikipedia:Template messages), and any editor may add (or remove) any template, so they are not particularly "official." They are, however, useful alerts to many kinds of quality issues, and they tell you that at least one editor has concerns about the article.
- Color Coding
Article warning messages are of a standard shape (slim and rectangular) and are color coded: orange for content issues, red for a deletion candidate, and yellow for cleanup. Blue is used for any general informative messages. See Wikipedia:Article message boxes, shortcut WP:AMB, for a full explanation.
Following any messages, the text of the article itself begins. Often the article text is broken up into numerous sections, which should convey a logical structure to the article and break it into manageable pieces. If there are three or more such sections, a Table of Contents (ToC) is automatically displayed. Clicking any of the links in the ToC takes you directly to that section of the article. You can hide a lengthy ToC by clicking the [show/hide] link; if you are logged in, you can also disable all ToCs from showing in your user preferences.
Regardless of how many sections there are, the article should start with a strong introductory paragraph that tells you the topic of the article and why it is important.
The text itself should also be sprinkled throughout with internal links, or wikilinks, to other articles; these links are displayed in blue. Clue: If no wikilinks exist in the text, there's a strong chance the article was written by someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia's conventions, and the article itself may be questionable.
The text may also contain images (which should have captions) or graphics that summarize information about the topic. To see the full-size image and more information about it, simply click the image; this takes you to the image description page.
You may also see an infobox near the beginning of an article, typically on the right-hand side. These boxes are standardized presentations of key facts about the article's topic. Different styles of infoboxes have been developed for articles in many diverse fields, from species of plants to Australian cricketers. They are all based on templates, which are described in Chapter 9, Images, Templates, and Special Characters. Clue: Authors do not sign anywhere in articles, so if you see a signature in article text, it was left by someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia's conventions.
For references, the article may contain footnotes or inline references. Sometimes external links are embedded in the text; this referencing style is discouraged, however, in favor of footnotes. Footnotes will appear as small superscript numbers at the ends of sentences; clicking the footnote number takes you to the appropriate footnote at the end of the article and vice versa; clicking the caret (^) at the beginning of a footnote takes you back to the text.
At the end of a good article, you'll find several standardized sections: See also, References, and External links. (On a disambiguation page, which serves as a dedicated navigational structure to point you to articles with related names, these aren't used.) The See also section should include a list of other relevant Wikipedia articles. Generally, articles that are already linked in the text are not included in this section. References, sometimes called sources or notes, include the sources used in writing the article. When present, footnotes are often listed here, or in a Notes section appended to the references. The External links section includes links to other relevant non-Wikimedia websites on the topic. For instance, if the article is about a company or organization that has a homepage on the Web, a link to this site should be included in External links.
There are occasionally Bibliography and Further reading sections included as well; the former may list publications by the subject of the article, whereas Further reading may list other important sources of information that aren't directly cited in the article. There may also be links to other Wikimedia sister projects in this section—for example, links to related media on the Wikimedia Commons or to a dictionary definition of a term on Wiktionary. There may also be messages in this section explaining that material has been imported from a non-copyrighted source. Clue: Any material imported from another source, such as an old encyclopedia, may need to be updated.
- Reference and Research
The more critical attention you are giving an article and the more seriously you are researching a topic, the more the article's references are going to interest you. Though this is far from always being the case, references should be a mixture of online and paper sources and of recent works along with standard texts that give broad context. A good References, External links, or Further reading section can be a great place to start doing research, especially if you are new to a topic.
At the very bottom of the article, you find any stub messages. A stub, as mentioned in Chapter 1, What's in Wikipedia?, is simply a short or beginning article that may be incomplete. Stub articles are sorted by topic and identified with these short template-based messages that tell you the article is a stub and what broad topic category it falls into. Clue: A stub article will likely be incomplete in terms of the information provided—seeing a stub message is an alert to check other sources as well.
A small box listing the categories into which the article has been placed follows the body of the article. Clicking any of these category links takes you to the category page, which lists other related articles in the same category. Clue: All articles should be in at least one category. An article that doesn't have any categories listed is likely new or orphaned.
If you want to place an article in a broader context, or if you're researching a topic in depth, the What Links Here link in the sidebar can be useful. Clicking this link shows you other pages that link to the article you are currently viewing. In other words, this link gives you a list of backlinks—places where your article is referenced on other pages. Checking the backlinks is one of the tricks of the trade for getting the most out of Wikipedia.
For an article on a basic topic, there may be a great number of other articles that link to it, and there may be too many backlinks to tell you anything useful. You won't learn a great deal from the backlinks to the article on New York, except that they are very numerous indeed. On the other hand, only a handful of articles may link to a more obscure article. For instance, for a historical figure you are researching, the backlinks may well turn up points of entry to research further: articles about events that occurred during their lifetime or lists of officeholders that include the person of interest. Don't assume the article itself will send you to all those other pages in its See also section—articles are always works in progress. Searching the site for the article's title won't necessarily turn up all the references to it on other pages, either, if the references are hidden in internal wikilinks with different alternate text. Using What Links Here will catch all the references to an article, however, including where it may have been discussed on user or project talk pages. If you're checking the quality of an article, it's always worth checking the backlinks.
No backlinks at all means you have found an orphan, which is considered a debilitating condition. An orphaned article is unfortunate and possibly suspect, alerting the reader to issues of potential concern. It may simply be that the article is new and no other articles have had a chance to link to it yet, or it could be a topic that is not really encyclopedic. If an article claims to be about an important topic, but nothing links to it, it may well be a hoax. Check to see how old the article is, as described in the next section. Clue: No incoming links can also mean the article has a poor choice of title, perhaps not conforming to Wikipedia style. It is also conceivable that an orphaned article has a typo in the title (for instance, a subtle error such as the wrong punctuation or Mc instead of Mac). If this is the case, it's worth searching for other articles about the same topic, as described in Chapter 3, Finding Wikipedia's Content.
Once you've read an article thoroughly, you want to understand its next important aspect—how to read its history. Every page on Wikipedia, whether an article, a talk page, or any other page (except for the auto-generated special pages), has a record of all changes made to it that is captured in the page history.
Page histories are revealing to those in the know. The goal of reading a page history is often to determine the story of what has happened to an article over time. How old is an article? How many and which editors have worked on it? Has the topic been contentious, the subject of debate between editors? Has the page improved over time, or has any good content been lost? Was a particular edit valuable to the article? Is the current version that you're looking at vandalized? The page history can answer all of these questions and can also give you a good idea of an article's trustworthiness. Experienced Wikipedians glean a great deal about articles from looking over the page history and then following up on some of the individual edits that make up that history. Clue: How contentious the article topic is matters, because a subject that turns into a combat zone often drives off all but highly partisan editors; with careful investigation, the page history can tell you whether this is the case.
The page history is accessible by clicking the History tab at the top of the page. The History tab always leads to the history of whatever page you're looking at. For instance, if you are viewing the talk page of an article, clicking the History tab will take you to the history of edits to that talk page, rather than the history of the article it's associated with. Go back to viewing the article, and then click the History tab to see the article's history.
Substantial articles usually have a number of contributors. If the page history indicates that the page is entirely or almost entirely the work of one person, you are dealing with a situation more comparable to evaluating an article on someone's private website. Clue: A short history is a warning sign. If only a few people have edited an article, it is likely that only a few people have reviewed the factual content, and the page may represent a limited view of the topic.
You Can't Change Wikipedia
You can't actually change anything in Wikipedia … you can only add to it. An article you read today is simply the current draft; every time it is changed, both the new version and a copy of the old version are kept. This allows you to compare different versions and restore older content if necessary. Except for page deletions (discussed in Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes), no content is ever actually removed from Wikipedia. (Adapted from Wikipedia:Ten things you may not know about Wikipedia)
Even in a long history, however, some edits should be discounted as being of little significance to the content. A number of editors may have simply made minor formatting changes to an article. Some passing bot may have edited it mindlessly. These contributors may not have verified any of the content but have simply brought the article up to Wikipedia stylistic standards. A common situation is that a single contributor has written the bulk of a short or beginning article, and then a few people will reformat the article but not change the content substantially. In these cases, there is still only one primary author.
Reading a Page HistoryEdit
First and foremost, the page history tells you who has worked on the page, and it allows you to examine the successive versions of the article and the differences between them (see Figure 4.2, “Reading a page history, accessible from the History tab”). You can also see the date and time of each edit and compare versions of edits. Finally, you can see the comments that contributors have left in the Edit summary field regarding their edits.
Figure 4.2. Reading a page history, accessible from the History tab Each line in the page history represents a single edit. Every time a wiki page is modified and saved, a new version of that page is saved, and a new line is added to the page history. The most recent version is displayed at the top of the history, so reading down is reading back into any page's history.
Every line in a page history has several elements. Reading across, they are as follows:
- First are two links, curr and last, along with a radio button. Clicking curr for a particular version compares it to the most recent version of the article (so you can see how that version compares to the version currently displayed on the site), whereas clicking last compares a particular version to the immediately preceding version (so you can see exactly what was changed with that particular edit). The radio buttons allow you to compare any two versions of an article, as described in "Analyzing a Page History" on Section 1.3.2, “Analyzing a Page History”.
- Next, the date and time of the edit are displayed as a blue link. By default, this time is set to display in the UTC time zone. (You can change the time to your local time zone if you are logged in by going to My Preferences, as described in "Setting Your Preferences" on Section 1.1.6, “Creating the Account”.) Clicking this link will show you that particular version of the page. When you're viewing an old version, a warning message is displayed at the top of the page, and the page URL in your browser will display the version number, or unique ID, of the version you are looking at. You can use this URL to link to this particular revision of the page. (This is also how Permanent Link on the left-hand sidebar works.)
- Next, the author of the edit is displayed. This author will be listed by either a username (if the editor was logged in) or an IP (Internet Protocol) address (if they were editing anonymously). Clicking the username will bring you to the editor's user page, if he or she has one; if the username is displayed as a redlink, that means the editor was logged in but has not yet created a user page. If an editor was not logged in, the numeric IP address of the computer he or she was editing from will display instead, and clicking the IP address will bring you to a list of that IP's contributions.
- After the editor's name, there are links in parentheses to the editor's user talk page (Talk) and, if the editor is logged in, his or her contributions (contribs). Whether an editor was logged in or not, you can go to his or her talk page to leave a message. Clue: If you suspect vandalism, it can be particularly helpful to go the talk page to see if a particular editor has racked up any warnings from other editors. Again, a redlink means there are no messages yet on an editor's talk page. Clicking the Contribs link shows you a list of all the edits that particular editor has ever made.
- Next, some edits will display a lowercase m if the edit was marked as minor by the editor; minor edits are generally small changes, such as spelling or typo corrections. The number in parentheses that follows (for edits made since mid-2007) shows the number of bytes that were changed with that individual edit; a large number is generally reflective of the entire article being edited and saved. (Somewhat more usefully, the net number of bytes changed with a single edit is also displayed in Recent Changes and in personal watchlists).
- Finally, any text that follows is part of the edit summary provided by the editor. This is (one hopes) an informative comment that is intended to describe what the edit accomplished and why it was made. Sometimes these summaries are created automatically and contain a variety of links; often they contain a kind of shorthand or jargon that has been developed over the years.
If an edit was made by a user who was not logged in, you can at least get a look at the other contributions made using the same IP address. But remember that the same IP address may represent different people editing, and different IPs may represent the same person, because Internet service providers don't always operate IP allocations in the simple way that telephone numbers are handed out. Many Internet service providers issue temporary IP addresses to their users from a pool of addresses, and when the user disconnects, the address is returned to the pool for allocation to someone else. These are known as dynamic IPs. (IP numbers that differ only in the last three places may be the same editor using a dynamic IP.) Furthermore, even if an IP address is fixed, it might be the IP for a computer in a public place, such as a library, an Internet café, or a school. This means, of course, that you may be seeing many people's contributions from the same IP address, and you cannot be sure a message left on the talk page will reach a particular user. IP addresses from public settings can sometimes reveal an extreme and baffling combination of excellent edits and vandalism. However, you still might be able to see that the particular edit occurred in the midst of a series of edits, which can help you gauge the character of whoever was at that machine at that time. If they've been determined to be from public computers, the discussion pages for IP addresses will sometimes have notices to this effect.
Analyzing a Page HistoryEdit
Comparing versions of an article, or examining diffs, is the most useful tool an editor has for determining how an article has changed over time. Diff is short for the differences between pages. The term diff is also commonly used as shorthand to refer to a particular old version of a page.
Checking the diffs can tell you not only how the page has changed over time but also if the current version displayed is the best one. If you suspect vandalism in the current version, for instance, flip back a change or two, using the radio buttons or the curr and last links, to see if the information persists. If something in the article seems untrue, it's worth comparing versions until you can determine when it was added and by whom. (After all, if you can ask the person who edited something into the article about the edit, you can perhaps get somewhere with your difficulty.)
Because all versions of a page are kept, any two versions can be compared. To do so, choose the radio button for the version you are interested in looking at. Another radio button will appear for all versions of the page that are newer than the one you chose. Choose this new right-hand radio button for the newer version you are interested in. (To compare to the most current version, choose the top radio button.) Now click the Compare Selected Versions button at the top of the page history.
A split screen will appear with two headers, as shown in Figure 4.3, “A diff is accessible by clicking Compare Versions on the page history. The newest version is shown on the right. Shading indicates a changed paragraph. The editor's name, the date and time of the edit, and the edit summary are listed at the top.”, each of which tells you the version date and time, the edit author, and his or her edit summary. The version on the right is always the newer version of the two you have selected. You will then see a line-by-line comparison of the wikisource of the two versions you have selected. On the old version, paragraphs that differ from the new version are highlighted yellow, and on the new version, they are highlighted green. Text removed within a paragraph is shown in red on the old version, whereas new text within a paragraph is shown in red on the new version; if a whole paragraph was removed or added, the text is simply black, whereas the other side is blank (white).
Figure 4.3. A diff is accessible by clicking Compare Versions on the page history. The newest version is shown on the right. Shading indicates a changed paragraph. The editor's name, the date and time of the edit, and the edit summary are listed at the top.
- Undoing Vandalism
Any old version of a page can be edited and resaved to become the most current version, overriding any other edits. When this is done to undo a single edit, it's called reverting that edit. Reverting is how mistakes can be easily fixed, as explained in Chapter 5, Basic Editing, and how most vandalism is removed, as explained in Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes.
Below this highlighted summary of changes, the entire rendered view of the more recent of the two versions you are comparing is displayed. Note that you can change this view in your user preferences, under Misc.
If no line-by-line differences are displayed, there are no differences between the two versions of the page. If there are also intermediate edits in between the two versions you are comparing, the comparison will tell you this (for example, 5 intermediate edits not shown). Only differences that occur between the two versions you are comparing are displayed.
If an edit was made by a registered user, you can follow up by going to that user's page to see who he is (or at least who he claims to be). Associated with each user page is the accompanying user talk page, which can give you a flavor of the user's interactions with other users: Is it full of thank-you notes or vitriolic arguments? Clicking the contributions of any particular contributor shows you the edits this particular person has made in Wikipedia. Clue: Is this a new or experienced contributor? What else has he or she been working on?
You'll sometimes need to find the exact revision in the history when a particular piece of information was added to an article. Perhaps you need to know who added a questionable statement or what the reasoning was behind adding a cleanup tag to the article. You could simply go back from the current revision one diff at a time, comparing each version until you find the one you are looking for. This method works well for articles with very short histories, but quickly becomes tedious for an article with a long edit history. Rather than doing this, then, there are a few tricks for quickly reviewing long page histories:
- First, at the top of the page history, set the number of changes viewable to 500 rather than 50, so you can see all of the history (or at least more of it) on a single screen.
- Quickly scan the edit summaries—does anything pop out? If, for instance, you are looking for the addition of a cleanup tag, does anyone mention adding this tag? Using CTRL-F to do a search for a particular term can sometimes be helpful.
- If you don't find the version you're looking for, skip back a large number of changes and bisect the edit history by picking a revision somewhere in the middle. Review this revision by clicking the linked date or compare it to the current revision using the radio buttons. Is the information you're looking for in this old revision?
- If so, keep going back several changes at a time until you find a version where it's not present. If not, go forward several changes until you find a version where it is present.
- Once you've done this, you'll have located two revisions on either side of when the information you're looking for was added—one before the information was added and one after (the earliest revision you found that included the information). Once you've narrowed down a range in this manner, work your way backward and forward within the range a few revisions at a time, comparing revisions using the radio buttons.
- Narrowing down the exact diff when something was added is usually quick. You can then follow up by checking the editor's edit summary and other contributions and determining whether it seems like a trustworthy edit.
Edit Summaries and Minor EditsEdit
When reading page histories, you'll see comments and explanations. These are edit summaries, short comments provided by editors to help explain their edits. Edit summaries display in the page history, Recent Changes, and in user watchlists. The ideal edit summary briefly explains the nature of the edit and gives some context for it (for instance, not simply saying rewriting but rewrote 2nd paragraph for grammar and clarity). Edit summaries don't have to be complicated. If you make a test edit yourself, add test in the Edit summary box. When you reverse the edit, simply write undo test in the box.
Edit summaries are optional (though a very good idea), and even if present, they may be cryptic because a large body of jargon has been developed over the years. For instance, you might not be able to fathom avoid dab the first time you see it, but it is shorthand for avoided a disambiguation page, which, in turn, means that a link was fixed to point to an appropriate article instead of to a disambiguation page. To wikify a page is to add appropriate wikilinks to a page, by linking appropriate words, names, and phrases to other articles; it is one of the most common operations, as editors weave the web of the wiki, and it may also appear in a summary as wfy.
There are also some edit summaries that are automatically added by the software. For instance, the title of the section that was edited is automatically added and appears in grayed-out type in edit histories. Occasionally, you will see small conversations between editors as they go back and forth on a point (edit summaries are not indexed or searchable, however, so any really important discussion should always go on the talk page). Edit summaries can contain wikilinks if needed.
Refer to Appendix C, Edit Summaries Jargon or Appendix D, Glossary or Wikipedia:Edit summary legend (shortcut WP:ESL) for other possible terms that may occur in edit summaries. If you are having trouble figuring out an edit summary, compare the version in question with the immediately preceding version. The diff should make things clear.
In assessing an article, look for edit summaries that indicate reversions of a page to a previous state. These will be denoted by revert or abbreviations such as rv or rvt, and indicate either reversal of vandalism or editors disagreeing on a point. Clue: A patch of edits with many reverts in a page history indicates some sort of editing war. The quality of articles, unfortunately, is likely to degrade sharply in an extended edit war, so be warned.
Another important warning sign is an editor who never bothers with edit summaries. Clue: Especially if the editor is editing as anonymous, rather than editing with an account, you should treat such uncommented edits with suspicion.
The lowercase bolded m that sometimes appears next to the edit summary refers to a minor edit. This edit is one that the editor deemed small enough that it doesn't have to be reviewed by other editors. Examples of minor edits include spelling and grammar corrections, link fixes, and small formatting changes. Edit summaries for minor edits, if they exist, are often quite short: typo or spp for a spelling correction. Only logged-in users can mark an edit minor. While logged in, you can also choose to exclude minor edits in your views of the Recent Changes page and your watchlist.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:What_links_here About backlinks
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Page_history How to read a page history
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Edit_summary An introduction to the edit summary and more information about automatic edit summaries
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Edit_summary_legend A glossary of commonly used edit summaries; helpful if you come across an abbreviation you don't recognize
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Diff How to read the difference between two versions of a page
Discussion or talk pages are meant for discussion about articles and other pages. Nearly every page on Wikipedia has an attached, dedicated discussion page. These pages exist in the various Talk namespaces. You access or create a talk page by clicking the Discussion tab; if the type is blue, the page already exists; if it is red, you will be creating it.
Talk pages are important, socially and practically. They help strengthen content, and they're also an integral part of Wikipedia's community. Talk pages are the "grass roots"—they function as a space for conversation between all the readers and editors of an article. Editors can mention possible problems, leave notes about current or ongoing work on the article, and negotiate a way through conflicts on content. Wikipedia's main aim, to build up its editing community and improve the articles that have been started, is played out here. Talk pages play a large part in making Wikipedia work by keeping discussion close to the article's content, rather than on a centralized discussion forum. And anyone may take part, even if they're not logged in.
We mention how talk pages work early on in this book, not because you're necessarily going to post to them immediately, but because talk pages are essential components of articles, and they often carry important information about an article's quality. Examining talk pages is key to evaluating articles properly.
Reading and Contributing to Talk PagesEdit
Talk pages provide a way for people to discuss articles without leaving comments in the actual article itself. They also provide a handy place for WikiProjects and other editing projects (discussed further in Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes) to place evaluations and messages. The beginning of a talk page may have several templated messages, warnings, or ratings, as well as links to archives of older talk page discussions.
Sooner or later, as a reader of Wikipedia you will disagree strongly enough with something in an article to want to do something about it. Or perhaps some point in an article is a mystery, and you'd like a reference to another source. Although you can simply edit the article, the best way to express concerns or get feedback or help from others working on the article is to leave a message on the talk page. If necessary, start a new thread yourself. Simply edit the page by clicking the Discussion tab to go to the talk page, and then the Edit This Page tab or the New Section tab. Add a new section or a new comment, as described here.
A given conversation may be joined by two, three, or dozens of contributors. Talk page discussions usually consist of threaded comments below a topical header; the most recent comment is at the bottom. Replies to a comment are placed underneath it and are indented to help the dialog stand out more clearly. At least that is the theory: Complex discussion often generates branches within one thread or page section. Editors may want to come back to some point made higher up the page; if so, they should use deep indenting to try to keep the side-issue clearly delineated. Unlike contributions to articles, comments are signed by their authors.
By convention, each new topic on a discussion page is set off from the previous topics with a header like this:
==sheep foraging habits== I was just wondering: what is the deal with the foraging habits of sheep? do the listed references cover this? I think we need some more detail about this important topic. -- Phoebe 19:11, 13 Jan 2007 (EST)
Using the ==Heading== formatting will add a heading to your comment, which will create a table of contents automatically. Add a new comment, with a header, to the very bottom of the page, below any other text that appears in the source box; then click Save at the bottom of the page. Alternatively, use the New Section tab, which allows you to start a new section without needing to edit the whole page. The Subject/Heading field will become the section heading for your comment. When you use the Post a Comment feature, shown in Figure 4.4, “Post a Comment tab from a talk page”, the section heading will also become the edit summary, so you don't need to create a separate edit summary when you save the page.
Figure 4.4. Post a Comment tab from a talk page Post a Comment tab from a talk page
You can indent comments with a bullet point and space (type an asterisk, followed by a colon); or more commonly, you can simply use a colon. Subsequent replies should be further indented using more colons; the number of colons provides a reference to the discussion level. For example, when you edit a talk page, the page source code may look like this:
==sheep foraging habits== I was just wondering: what is the deal with the foraging habits of sheep? do the listed references cover this? I think we need some more detail about this important topic. -- Phoebe 19:11, 13 Jan 2007 (EST) :* Sheep foraging habits are covered in Sheep of the world, listed in references. -- Sj 18:24, 10 February 2007 (EST) ::* There's also some info in Sheep Past and Present.—A New Zealander (talk) 18:55, 10 February 2007 (EST) :::* ok, thanks everyone! -- Phoebe 12:11, 11 Feb 2007 (EST)
and will produce the page shown in Figure 4.5, “A threaded discussion on a talk page”.
Figure 4.5. A threaded discussion on a talk page A threaded discussion on a talk page
This clearly shows the threaded discussion over time. A new topic is added to the bottom of the page with another section heading:
==Wool== The paragraph about wool types is confusing. Could someone who understands the subject rewrite it? -- Charles Matthews 21:14, 14 Jan 2007 (EST)
You will see various styles of indentation used on Wikipedia.
The editor name and date are produced with automatic signatures. Comments on talk pages, unlike changes made to articles, should always be signed. To produce your signature, type four tildes (Phoebe (discuss • contribs) 04:40, 12 June 2013 (UTC)). If you're logged in, this will generate a signature that by default consists of your username with a link to your user page and a timestamp with the date and time of your edit. It looks something like this:
Username 19:36, 10 January 2006 (UTC)
If you're not logged in, typing four tildes will produce your IP address plus a timestamp. When adding talk page comments, it is certainly an advantage to have an account. It inspires some confidence in other editors to know your username—you are identifying yourself as a member of the Wikipedia community, rather than just a number. With an account comes a user page and a personal user talk page, where people can, in turn, leave messages for you. If you aren't logged in, your IP address will be recorded; this address may be shared with other contributors if you are editing on a public computer, or it may change from edit to edit if it is a dynamic IP. IP addresses also have talk pages where messages can be left for that IP, but there is no guarantee that the message will reach the intended editor.
Take Time to Tilde
Always sign comments on talk pages (but never sign articles)! This is one of the golden rules of Wikipedia; not doing so is considered very bad form. These days, if you don't sign your comments, a bot may give you a lesson in manners by adding your signature automatically when you leave talk page comments. Find out more about custom signatures in Chapter 11, Becoming a Wikipedian. 1.4.2. Making Good Use of Talk Pages
On talk pages, the basic idea is to make a clear point about how the article should be improved or what you'd like to know. For a suggested change, make a brief, calm case for your change (no need to go on at great lengths) backed up by necessary references. Chances are someone will change the article for you. If not, after a few days, you can do it yourself. Posting a preliminary comment on the talk page before making a change acts as a kind of insurance policy, as well as an explanation of your change. If you discuss first and then edit, you should not come under suspicion of high-handed behavior. Any controversial action should always be discussed on the talk page first. You are also welcome to weigh in on other ongoing discussions. In Chapter 12, Community and Communication, we'll take up how to use talk pages to communicate with other editors most effectively.
User talk pages are meant for conversation between editors, rather than conversation about a particular article. If you have an account, others may leave you messages on your user talk page by going to User talk:yourusername and editing the page there. When new messages are left for you on your user talk page, you'll receive a pop-up message when you next log in that notifies you about the messages (see Figure 4.6, “A notice alerts you to a new message on your personal talk page.”).
Figure 4.6. A notice alerts you to a new message on your personal talk page. A notice alerts you to a new message on your personal talk page.
This notice makes it easy to know when you have new messages, and the prompt persists until you go to the page. If you're not logged in, you might still find a prompt and messages for your current IP number.
You can reply to any messages left for you on your own talk page, in a threaded discussion, or on the other editor's talk page. For more about how to conduct a good discussion with another editor on a user talk page, see Chapter 11, Becoming a Wikipedian. The basics are to be straightforward and, of course, polite.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Talk_page Discussion page guidelines
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Signatures Signing talk pages
Wikipedia is in a constant state of development, with contributors adding new articles and improving existing articles every minute. Inevitably, quality varies greatly from article to article. Although most articles in Wikipedia are useful as a basic reference, the majority are still incomplete treatments of their topic. Furthermore, some articles are unreliable, as discussed in this section; spotting these is the first concern of a careful reader. This unreliability does not make Wikipedia useless, but it does imply that you need to exercise a degree of caution.
Evaluating articles is one of the fundamental skills for becoming both a skilled reader and an involved editor of Wikipedia. Whereas any reader should be able to judge the value of the information he or she is looking at quickly, editors must be able to discern what could be improved about an article as they set to work.
With experience, editors can quickly assess articles, even on unfamiliar topics, on the basis of clues and tricks of the trade. Although there are some established Wikipedia rating systems, judging articles remains more like choosing fresh produce rather than pulling processed food off a supermarket shelf—it helps to know what you're looking for and how to judge blemishes. 2.1. Misinformation, Missing Information, and Mistakes
Misinformation in an article is a real possibility, given the way that Wikipedia is compiled. The general public is, fortunately, now aware of this point: It is a very bad idea to rely on the uncorroborated testimony of a Wikipedia article. Use articles as stepping stones into a subject, not crutches to lean on. As it says at Wikipedia:General disclaimer, Wikipedia makes no guarantee of validity. A surprisingly common misconception is that Wikipedia employs fact-checkers for its articles, but that doesn't represent the situation on the ground. Facts are checked all the time by many active editors, but there is no one class of people on the site whose job is to confirm facts.
In most reference works, facts and other statements of truth are presented as having been vetted by a complex publishing process involving writers, editors, and fact-checkers, so the reader expects them to be correct. In Wikipedia, you cannot be so complacent. Though there are systems for peer review and developing accurate information, there is no guarantee at all that these processes and systems will have been applied to the particular article you're reading; the article might have been created in the past hour or not evaluated at all since it was created years ago. Each article is written by a different group of people with a varying amount of attention paid to it. Because of this, there is no serious way to judge Wikipedia as a whole; saying the site is a "good source" or a "bad source" is not precise enough. Instead, there are good and bad articles and a wide spectrum in between.
There are a few specific kinds of problems that may occur, each with different causes—misinformation, missing information, and simple mistakes. They all lead to inaccurate information being presented to the reader.
Misinformation, or bad information, comes in a few flavors. Wrong information that is purposely added is considered vandalism. Much of the vandalism on Wikipedia is obvious and silly graffiti or removal of article text in favor of graffiti. One of the great successes of Wikipedia is that this kind of vandalism can be easily cleaned up by anyone and is usually cleaned up very quickly; researchers that studied editing histories in 2003 measured the median cleanup time for obvious and vulgar vandalism as being less than three minutes. Low-level vandalism, and its correction, is a constant occurrence in the open world of Wikipedia; a more recent study by University of Minnesota academics analyzed 57,601,644 article revisions and found that although about 5 percent of the revisions were vandalized, 42 percent of these damaged revisions were repaired essentially immediately, within one reader pageview. (See Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes for more on vandal-fighting efforts).
However, deliberately added misinformation or vandalism can also be quite subtle. Misinformation can be introduced deliberately by people attempting to get a point of view across (which violates Wikipedia's core policy of Neutral Point of View). This might be done by only including a certain side of a debate, adding in and emphasizing controversial views, or relying on sources that only promote a certain point of view. Convincing misinformation can persist for a long time, especially in little-trafficked articles, though a close eye on the article can usually reveal it as suspect when it was added. Much misinformation has a distinctive slanted tone that is out of character with the rest of the article and other properly written Wikipedia articles. The Taner Akçam case involved misinformation that was both vandalism (malicious damage to site content) and defamatory (targeted at an individual's reputation).
The Problem with Misinformation
A high-profile example of the problems that can result from not checking for vandalism occurred on February 16, 2007, when the Turkish scholar Taner Akçam of the University of Minnesota was held up when traveling to Canada by border officials. Akçam reported that, when pressed on why he was being detained, immigration officials showed him a copy of his Wikipedia article from December 24, 2006, which had been maliciously altered to claim he was a terrorist. The immigration officials had placed reliance on this misinformation. See Taner Akçam for some links to the story and background on Akçam's work on highly controversial issues.
Much more common than deliberate misinformation is the simple failure of missing information. Articles may be completely correct but missing key aspects of the topic. Further information and a more complete treatment could help put the topic better in context, or perhaps even totally change the meaning of the information in the article. Because Wikipedia is built piecemeal, for an article to be missing some information is extremely common—and even expected. Stub articles, for instance, are known to be missing substantial details, but even longer or untagged articles may be missing parts. The only sure way to know you are getting the complete picture is to compare the article to other sources on the same topic.
Mistakes—misinformation that is not added maliciously—can happen in a wide variety of ways. Editors may add information that they remember to be true, but human memory is fallible. Perhaps they will add facts or ideas that have been discredited or are otherwise outdated. The sources that editors rely on might be wrong or misinterpreted. Copying and pasting information is very easy to do on the Web, so mistakes may be copied from one site to another and then repeated in Wikipedia (and then copied back out to other websites). Even simple typos, such as in numbers and dates, may lead to changes in meaning.
What should you do when Wikipedia gives you wrong information? The important thing, perhaps, is not to rely on the site for crucial information; always check other sources in addition to Wikipedia for important topics. More fundamentally, however, evaluating the content that you find is important.
If a subject is unfamiliar to you, evaluating an article may turn out to be difficult as well as important. Fortunately, the transparency of Wikipedia's development process means there are a variety of places to look for problems. So far we have flagged clues—any aspect of an article or its history where problems may be indicated if present. In this section, we'll outline a systematic approach, which should be applied more rigorously the more seriously you are studying a topic. A key theme is to look for clues to an author or authors' inexperience with Wikipedia.
There are five general areas to evaluate for every article.
D: Discussion Check the talk page of the article for any controversy regarding the article.
R: Rating Is there a formal rating of the article, or a cleanup notice? WikiProject ratings are on talk pages, not in the article itself.
E: Edit history The history of an article will tell you how and by whom it has been put together.
W: Writing and format How does the page read? How does it look?
S: Sources Are claims in the article well supported by solid references? 2.2.1. Discussion on the Talk Page
A talk page may not yet exist for a given article (in which case it will show up in red), but for controversial topics, there are most likely some notices and discussion already there. A particular point that's bothering you may already have been discussed. Any warning tag appearing on the article referring to a content dispute should (though it doesn't always) also lead you to the appropriate discussion thread on the talk page.
The talk page is, therefore, where to start looking to see if the validity of the article content is disputed or other questions have been raised. Is there a long Table of Contents on the talk page? Are there links to archives of previous discussions? Both of these indicate involved debates in the past.
If you have your own concerns or questions about an article, the talk page is the place to post them. Anyone working on the article should notice these messages. 2.2.2. Ratings
Another aspect to consider is how articles have been rated by other editors. Ratings may be in the form of negative evaluations (such as cleanup tags on the article) or positive ones, as articles are assessed as being among the best in Wikipedia.
There are two formal rating processes to choose excellent articles, both of which involve getting consensus among editors. The lengthy peer review processes that produce featured articles and good articles do guarantee attention to quality. Featured articles, which may end up on the main page, represent some of the best content available; however, they make up only about 0.1 percent of the total content of Wikipedia. Once featured, an article will have a small bronze star in the upper-right corner along with a note indicating this on the discussion page. good articles, which do not need to be as extensive as featured articles, will only include a note on the talk page. (See Wikipedia:Featured articles and Wikipedia:Good articles to browse collections of these articles.)
There have also been several formal rating projects to assess the quality of articles within a certain topic area; these ratings typically don't require consensus but instead reflect an individual editor's opinion of the article, based on set standards. Most rating projects have been organized by WikiProjects that focus on a particular topic area (for instance, Wikipedia:WikiProject Chemistry, which was one of the first to rate articles). If you're using Wikipedia for research on a particular topic, you may be fortunate enough to find that basic article rating is well advanced in your area of interest. Most of the rating systems amount to saying, On a scale of 1 to 5, where is this article? Any rating notices will be placed on the article talk page.
One general assessment project is the Wikipedia 1.0 WikiProject, which has taken the idea of rating articles and applied it across topics in a drive to collect high-quality articles on basic topics for release in collections. (The project has already helped issue some CDs of basic Wikipedia content.) Wikipedia 1.0 uses six classifications to rate articles: stub, start, B, A, good article, and featured article (which is reserved for articles that have gone through the featured article process). This editorial classification is also adopted by some WikiProjects. Again, members of the 1.0 project leave their ratings on article talk pages.
Finally, editors may assess articles as needing work. This is less formal than the processes just described, but is more widespread. As described, you may see warning messages at the tops of articles. These message boxes are produced by templates and may be added by any editor (as described in Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes), and if you see one, it's a clue to look closely to see what the problem is. Sometimes it's obvious: A completely unformatted article or one with terrible spelling and no wikilinks is likely to get a cleanup message. Sometimes it's not obvious, however, especially since templates don't automatically go away: Someone may fix the problem but fail to remove the template. One trick is to go through the page history to see when the message was added and if the edit summary gives any further information.
If you see a message noting that an article is up for deletion, this is a huge red flag that it's probably poor quality. The deletion message should give some short reason for deletion. Deletion decisions are made through one of several processes; often articles will be up for discussion for a period of time before the decision is made, and the message will link to this discussion. See Chapter 7, Cleanup, Projects, and Processes for more information.
All of these ratings are simply indicative and should be taken with a grain of salt—ratings are approximate and subjective, often reflecting just one editor's assessment and not the current state of the article. However, knowing what other experienced editors think of the article can be extremely helpful in making your own decision about the article's quality.
A wiki page, quite unlike most pieces of published writing, carries all its drafts along with it. One of the major benefits of keeping all versions is that investigative work can be carried out; you can track when a piece of information was inserted into an article and by whom. There are also a few bigger-picture things to consider when looking at an article history.
Was the article recently created? When was it last edited?
Though age is certainly no guarantee of quality, older articles have likely been seen and evaluated by more editors.
Have many people contributed to the article, or is it the work of only one or two editors? Were those contributors logged in or editing anonymously?
More people working on an article should mean that more editors have seen, evaluated, and checked the article; however, minor edits such as spelling corrections probably don't indicate a full check of the article. If in doubt about a particular editor's change, check his or her overall contributions by clicking the Contribs link.
Is there evidence of ongoing edit wars or arguments over content (that is, are there continual reversions of changes between two or more people)? Do the same changes keep getting made and undone, whether this is indicated in the edit summaries or not?
This may indicate a controversial topic, one on which there is no consensus, or an unverifiable topic. Verify any key facts with outside references. Serious edit wars tend to cause deterioration of the text, so also look at older versions of the page, which may be better than the current page. Not every edit war is over a serious matter: If the disagreement is niggling back and forth at some small point, does it matter to you?
Is there evidence of heavy or continued vandalism (that is, constant changes and reversions, often between IP addresses and other editors, with edit summaries like revert or rvv vandalism)?
Although this is not in itself evidence of quality problems—some of the very best and most heavily trafficked articles on Wikipedia receive the most vandalism, simply because they are so visible—it does mean you should make sure the article you are viewing is an unvandalized version. Some vandalism may be subtle, for instance, changing a date or a conclusion, and again it is best to verify important facts in outside sources. It's worth checking the differences between the version you're viewing and some previous versions that were edited by other people to make sure the version you're viewing is complete, not randomly cut by a vandal.
In general, for any article you are assessing, pick a few versions to compare to the current version. Get a sense of the page as dynamic: Has it changed a great deal over time, or was it submitted to the site nearly complete? How fast is the article changing? Was it once much longer than it is now? Although articles will generally get better and longer over time, sometimes they drift. Occasionally you will find that a previous version—sometimes months or even years earlier—was actually clearly better than the current version.
Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Captured Koala: A Page History Mystery
This exciting online mystery by Adam Cadre hinges on reading a Wikipedia page history! See actual screenshots on Section 3.4.2, “Navigating Categories” at http://adamcadre.ac/content/brown/.
Writing and FormattingEdit
Read an article through, for example, as you would a newspaper article. In evaluating articles, you must, of course, consider the nature of the article text itself. First impressions of quality are significant. Is it properly presented and apparently comprehensive? Does it carry conviction, as to its authority and balance of coverage? These points matter, along with close reading for factual accuracy. However, there are more concrete clues to the level of an article's development, as well.
Is the article well written, well explained, and in proper English? Within the article, is the topic explained in a way that makes sense to a casual reader, with a good explanatory opening paragraph and a clear definition in the first sentence?
If not, then it has likely lacked attention from experienced editors; it also may not have been written by someone really familiar with the topic. Good writing doesn't ensure factual accuracy, but as a piece of circumstantial evidence, it can make it more likely.
Of course, we are not saying that an article written by a non-native speaker of English is necessarily worse than one written by a native speaker: Expertise outranks language skills. But if mistakes in English persist in an article, no editor on the site with good English has worked over it. What matters is the neglect, not who the first author was. If an article is well written in a tight factual style and properly organized, it was either originally written that way, or it was subsequently improved by other editors. Either way, the article was likely looked at by someone with a good knowledge of encyclopedic writing and Wikipedia conventions.
Is the article formatted according to the Manual of Style? These are the guidelines for making Wikipedia articles look like Wikipedia articles.
Experience shows that this question is also very useful, at least if you are familiar with standard format on Wikipedia pages. Chapter 6, Good Writing and Research describes the Wikipedia Manual of Style in some detail. Clue: Compliance with formatting guidelines means that the original author or subsequent editors were familiar with them. If you read Wikipedia for a while, it won't be hard to recognize a page that has obvious formatting problems.
For instance, is the page conventionally wikilinked to other Wikipedia articles? Are the See also and External links sections formatted as bulleted lists? Ask yourself, does the article look and read like a respectable article? A page with unconventional formatting or plenty of formatting mistakes probably was not written by an experienced editor, which means, in turn, that the author also may not have followed more fundamental content policies. Probably the article has also been neglected since it was first posted. It may also have been cut and pasted from another site (which is usually a copyright violation). They say you can't judge a book by its cover … but if the dust jacket had obvious typos, you might begin to wonder.
Now you can assess the content itself.
Some format and sense issues can be clues to deletions by vandals. The removal of a chunk of text can on occasion be detected by missing punctuation, such as unfinished sentences, or other obvious glitches.
Are there sections that explain various parts of the topic in more detail (such as History and Modern Status or Biography and Works)?
Articles without sections tend to be unsorted, sometimes just collections of facts without much logical order. This could indicate work by an editor who is unfamiliar with Wikipedia, or perhaps there has been much editing without a comprehensive overview. If this is the case, expect some factual errors to have crept in. Take a look for gossip and rumor, urban myths, and so forth.
Depending on the topic, do you see the elements that you would expect to be there?
For instance, an article about an author should include a formatted bibliography of works; an article about a historical event should place the event in context and provide some sort of chronology. The lack of these may not mean the article is poor but simply that it is incomplete, and other sources should also be used to get a complete picture.
What tone does it take? Does it read like an encyclopedia article or like a personal essay or advertisement?
If an article clearly violates some of the core content policies, such as NPOV, then it was probably added by someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia, and it may or may not be suitable for the site. If there are outrageous claims in the midst of otherwise fair text, this may indicate vandalism and you should check back a few versions.
Is the article referenced? This is a fairly simple but fundamental test of an article's quality. If you are troubled by other aspects, this is where you will be led to conclusions on trustworthiness.
Many older encyclopedias do not list references in the text or at the end of an article. Instead, readers are expected to trust that the authors of those articles are experts in their field. The credibility of the work as a whole is an appeal to authority. In Wikipedia, there is really no way of knowing whether an article author is an expert or not. Instead, the references that are used matter greatly, both for verifying information and for giving you as a reader sources for further reading on the topic.
A reference, in this context, refers to a citation to an outside work: for example, a printed article, book, or a web page. Other Wikipedia articles do not count as references; although these may be linked in the text or listed in the See also section, using them as sources is circular and misses the point of trying to get outside verification. (You might check those other articles to see if they are better sourced.)
Sources and references provide a very tangible way to evaluate an article's accuracy. You can (in principle) always go back and check the original sources yourself to find out what they say. Most people will first try the more indirect approach of quick plausibility checks on the Web. This is where searches excluding results from Wikipedia can be handy, as mentioned in Chapter 3, Finding Wikipedia's Content.
The best kind of reference is for a specific piece of information in the article to be footnoted appropriately, with the citation being specific as to where to find the relevant information. This is the inline referencing style. More than anything else, a footnoted reference to a page in a scholarly book should confer confidence in the footnoted statement's accuracy. If in doubt, always check what the cited source and other sources say.
In a fully referenced article, all specific facts should be referenced. There have been extensive debates in the Wikipedia community over what this means and how far to go with references. As a reader, you probably have priorities: Check references first for claims that are surprising or likely to prove contentious. That is, good references are most vital for statements that you are unlikely to just take the author's word on.
Many articles are still not referenced inline. At the very least, sources should be clearly listed at the end of an article. Other references that are not used but that are relevant to studying the topic are placed in a Further reading section. Naturally, these references may still help you in verifying something.
- Trivia Sections
From the point of view of quality, it is hardest of all to assess isolated facts. A list of such facts with bullet points is a real challenge: How can one infer anything at all about the truth of any given point? This is precisely the state of trivia sections in many articles. If no reliable sources are given, there is no reason to trust them, since trivia may be surprising, obscure, or even bizarre. See Wikipedia:Avoid trivia sections in articles, shortcut WP:TRIVIA.
There are still hundreds of thousands of good, verifiable articles, contributed by experienced editors and about notable topics, that list no references. Referencing content is a slow and ongoing task, and strong emphasis was not placed on it during Wikipedia's early years. On the other hand, no references for a dubious topic may mean it's not suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia. The other evaluative criteria can help you tell which is the case. If it's a topic you know something about, adding good references is one of the key tasks that Wikipedia needs help with. Asking on talk pages is one basic way to request better referencing of a given article. Chapter 6, Good Writing and Research deals with techniques and syntax for referencing.
- Further Reading
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer The General disclaimer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Version_1.0_Editorial_Team/Assessment The criteria used by the Wikipedia 1.0 team
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Researching_with_Wikipedia An overview of considerations and techniques for using Wikipedia for research and evaluating individual articles
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia An overview of the general reliability of Wikipedia
 Viégas, Fernanda, et al. "Studying Cooperation and Conflict Between Authors with History Flow Visualizations." (CHI 2004, April 24–29, 2004). The IBM History Flow project: http://www.research.ibm.com/visual/projects/history_flow/.
 Priedhorsky, Reid, et al. "Creating, Destroying, and Restoring Value in Wikipedia." (GROUP '07, November 4–7, 2007). http://www-users.cs.umn.edu/~reid/papers/group282-priedhorsky.pdf.
Look over the article text, its associated discussion page, and their histories. The reader aware of Wikipedia's editing process can use these related pages to understand the provenance of an article and evaluate it. This process of evaluation is mostly based on experience with Wikipedia's standards—so if you're daunted by it, keep reading the site. Here is a baker's dozen of our best clues for evaluation, once more:
- If no wikilinks exist in the text, there's a strong chance an article was written by someone unfamiliar with Wikipedia's conventions, and it may be questionable. Does the text comply with other content guidelines?
- Compliance with Wikipedia formatting and style guidelines is a positive indication that an experienced editor has worked on the article. Are all the usual parts of an article present? Is it categorized in one or more categories?
- Is the article a stub? Stubs will likely be incomplete in their information. Are there obvious aspects of the topic missing?
- Did the material originally come from another source? Imported material, for example, from an old encyclopedia, may need updating.
- No incoming links (backlinks) is often a sign that an article is new, has not been much scrutinized, or has a poor title. Check for duplicate articles on the topic with different titles. Is the topic verifiable in outside sources?
- Is there evidence of disagreement or serious questions about content on the article discussion page?
- Are there warning or cleanup messages at the top of the article? Has the article been rated by other editors?
- A short page history is a warning sign. Is the article the work of more than one major author?
- A patch of edits with reverts in a page history indicates some sort of editing war going on. The quality of articles is likely to degrade sharply in an extended edit war. Are earlier versions of the article better?
- Are the authors new or experienced? Check their contributions—what else have they been working on?
- Especially for edits from an IP number, rather than an account, readers are entitled to treat edits without an edit summary with suspicion. Does the diff reveal vandalism or possible vandalism?
- If you suspect vandalism, check the editor or IP's talk page; are there any warnings from other editors?
- Are there sources present in the article? Are questionable or controversial statements referenced?