The Wikipedia Battle Over Really Short Articles

It may sound like a small matter, but it could have significant ramifications for the internet encyclopedia.

How short is too short?

Photo illustration by Slate. Ruler image by iStock.

You probably wouldn’t expect a blood protein to create a major fuss about one of the internet’s largest platforms. Yet here we are.

As Andrea James described on Boing Boing in February, Wikipedia editors recently went to battle over the removal of an article on the blood protein hemovanadin. (It has since been restored.) Even though the article is three sentences long, it is well-sourced, and while it is unlikely to become much longer, it obviously is scientific and potentially useful to Wikipedia readers. After all, good coverage of obscure, academic topics is one of Wikipedia’s advantages. In a follow-up piece, James argued that the hemovanadin incident is an example of “deletionism,” an extreme version of Wikipedia editing philosophy. What’s more, James said that deletionism is a threat to Wikipedia, as it leads to eliminating valuable seed contributions. If you, like so many, rely on Wikipedia to settle dinner-table disputes or start work on a term paper, reading about a “threat to Wikipedia” should be alarming.

But it’s a complicated story that requires you to understand certain things about how Wikipedia actually works. Wikipedia is edited entirely by volunteers, who create articles and stubs, debate changes, and try to enforce the site’s many policies and guidelines. Subjects must meet certain “notability standards” to be included, but those standards vary depending on the topic. While in some areas, like the notability of academics, the criteria are quite clear, in others there is a lot of interpretive freedom and different editors make judgment calls about leaving or deleting articles basing on their gut feeling (which very well may have been the case of hemovanadin).

Even if we optimistically assumed that Wikipedia volunteers all know the policies by heart (and it is virtually impossible—I once checked and found that the different regulatory documents on Wikipedia are more than 150,000 words), they all interpret them differently. The removal of the hemovanadin article and other examples don’t necessarily mean that the whole system of selecting articles for deletion is broken. People make mistakes, even Wikipedians, who are typically hard-working, dedicated to common good, and generally knowledgeable people. Still, the way Wikipedia treats short articles, and how it approaches deleting content in general, is detrimental to it in the long run.

Deletionists, as opposed to “inclusionists,” generally believe that the threshold for notability of topics covered on Wikipedia should be high. They also think that all content added to Wikipedia—even if it is meant as a stub to be developed later, like the hemovanadin item—should meet the high editorial standards of the world’s leading encyclopedia.

This approach can be utterly frustrating and demotivating, especially to new editors. They can get frustrated when their stub articles get deleted and they don’t really understand why, and no one tells them how they can improve their work for the future. To make matters worse, even a relatively small number of dedicated deletionists can make a huge impact, as deleting is much easier than writing.

In fact, the very ease of this process may be the reason for deletionism’s prevalence: Many Wikipedians suffer from editcountitis, the state of being overly obsessed with the number of edits one makes. Deleting is a quick and easy way to score. The phenomenon is dangerous, as a lot of Wikipedia’s powerful model relies on micro-contributions. Most people first get involved with Wikipedia—one of the largest social movements in history—by making some minor corrections or starting a small article that is missing. If their contributions get deleted, especially if there is no sufficient explanation why, they are likely to quit. It is quite destructive to the community’s long-term survival, as Wikipedia has struggled for quite a while with editor retention. Deletionism also often affects very specialized fields: For niche topics, an editor who is unfamiliar with them can find it really difficult to ascertain notability correctly.

On the other hand, deletionists have some points, too. After all, we don’t need encyclopedic articles for every single Pokémon. In fact, Wikipedia used to have them all described under separate articles. At some point inclusionists even referred to a “Pokémon test” as an argument for a given article’s inclusion: They argued that if a single Pokémon can have its own article, then surely the discussed topic is encyclopedic, too. But in early 2007, many of the articles about Pokémon were merged into one main entry, and others were deleted. Now the prevailing thought is that just because something can be described by verifiable sources doesn’t necessarily mean it’s notable.

Stubs are a particular point of contention for deletionists. When a stub is created, a link to the article from elsewhere on Wikipedia turns from red to blue, and the article no longer appears to be missing. Editors are generally encouraged to create red links to nonexistent articles, if they want to indicate that the topic is notable and worth covering. Research shows that red links help Wikipedia grow, or at least they did in the past: Editors perceive such red links as invitations to creating articles. But if only a short stub is created, editors—no longer seeing those red links that scream out—may feel the topic is already covered. Short stubs can exist for years, and they do not do justice to the typical high accuracy and informational saturation of Wikipedia articles.

In theory, instead of deleting, Wikipedia editors could just add more references or slightly expand the stub to make it better. Still, deleting is much quicker. Also, sometimes stubs are deleted not just because of a lack of information or references but because of their style. An article about early childhood trauma and resilience is a great example: While the knowledge contained in the article is really useful and well-developed, it is different stylistically from typical encyclopedic articles, and it does not follow the typical referencing syntax. It is perfectly understandable why it may be easier to delete the article rather than help improve it.

Nevertheless, deletionism in its current form and the general approach to stubs are damaging to Wikipedia. We need a cultural shift to prioritize support for goodwill, to encourage generation of fleshed-out articles about notable topics, and to be more forgiving and more inviting to the general public.

First, it would be useful if stub articles were not deleted as often, but instead flagged for expansion or improvement, with clear notation that it is a work in progress. This change would require a behavioral change of Wikipedians, so it will likely turn out to be difficult. After all, Wikipedia already has a “work in progress” template, which could and should be used for this purpose. But unfortunately, it is not very popular among editors.

Second, better sorting of stubs would help. Even though stubs already are marked as such, Wikipedians do not often focus on expanding them, possibly due to the fact that it is not easy to filter out stubs from specific areas of interest that one may have. Sadly, categorization of stubs is not consistently applied, although some important efforts are made in this respect. (A dedicated task force spends considerable time sorting stubs).

Third, in an even bolder move, we could consider introducing a different color for links leading to stubs and more aggressive flagging of incomplete articles. Such a change would go against the historical trend, though: On some projects (like the German and Polish ones), stubs are already not marked at all.

Fourth, the editors with deletionist inclination should put effort into constructive criticism—after all, the authors put considerable effort into developing the articles. Just like in academia, writing useful suggestions for improvement is difficult, but it also helps achieve a much better result in the end, while not frustrating the newcomers with sheer, imprecise negativity. If the Wikipedia community wanted to enforce this behavior, deleting promising, easily expandable stubs on clearly notable subjects without proper feedback to the author should be considered damaging to Wikipedia.

Fifth, whatever threshold for notability criteria we agree on, it is even more important for them not to be selectively biased. For instance, if we have very detailed articles about popular culture, we should make sure we put even more effort in developing articles, not just about the sciences, but also about topics that are simply more culturally diverse, and referring to different phenomena, institutions, and people from other countries with the same notability threshold (in practice, not just theory) as the one used on the English-language Wikipedia. A lot of misunderstandings and conflicts stem from the fact that Wikipedia’s notability criteria seem to be very uneven across fields, and they are also prone to possible gender bias.

Finally, more experienced editors should make a more serious effort to expand their contributions, if they can. Sometimes it is better to create one solid starting article than three stubs. Writing three stubs is much more useful than deleting six stubs. Experienced Wikipedians usually know other editors and can ask them for help in developing the articles, thus they should at least make an effort to not leave poor stubs unattended. Some of them should be also politely advised to use their own personalized sandboxes before publishing half-baked stubs.

Deleting someone’s work without proper feedback has a very bad effect on his or her engagement. Sometimes, if the person is a troll, that’s a good thing—but if it affects good editors, it damages Wikipedia in the long term. After all, the two most typical reactions to one’s work being deleted is fighting or fleeing. And obviously, it is not only the newcomers who get upset when their articles disappear—it affects well-seasoned Wiki-veterans, too. This is why it is so important to put sufficient effort into explaining the reasons for justified deletion and to support the goodwill contributors, even if their work is not good enough to keep.

Though the author currently serves on the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the views expressed in this article are solely his own.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.