Some standards of excellence

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August 28, 12:10 AM -- I will have to flesh this out later, but I felt compelled to outline, for now, a number of basic standards for excellent articles in general:

  • They begin with a definition or clear description of the subject at hand. This is made as absolutely clear to the nonspecialist as the subject matter itself will allow. The purpose of an encyclopedia is to codify human knowledge in a way that is most accessible to the most people, and this demands clear descriptions of what the subject matter is about. So we aren't just dropped into the middle of the subject from the first word--we are eased into it.
  • They acknowledge and explore, in depth, the different ways there are of approaching the same topic. They are not intellectually provincial or academically imperialistic (often, two sides of the same coin). They do not reflect just one person's point of view--they are evidently the result of many people collaborating, or one person really thinking hard and really understanding very well all the different ways there are to come to grips with the subject.
  • They are completely unbiased. They make a careful attempt, as is sometimes possible only in the hands of a true expert, to present each of various competing views on controversial subjects fairly and sympathetically. Not only are the competing views sympathetically presented, they are organized logically, so that the author has a clear understanding of the "lay of the land." Of course, the most popular views, whatever they are, are emphasized, and the extreme minority views are underemphasized (though they might be highly detailed on their own pages).
  • They are long. Almost every article, when it is really excellent, is going to have to be quite long in order to be any good.
  • They reflect expert knowledge of a sort that is careful and precise. While they are clear and accessible, they are not full of the sorts of vague generalities and half-truths that almost inevitably crop up when nonexperts try to write articles on stuff that they only think they understand.
  • They are well-documented. They have references. The references are not idiosyncratic to the author but are the references that are most often used in the field.
  • They are really clearly written. They are written in such a way that it's difficult to misunderstand what is meant. Not only do they begin with a definition, they follow a self-evident structure and use clearly-worded sentences. They are written throughout with attention to how someone who actually needs the article will understand, or might potentially fail to understand, what is said.
  • Their structure, and the necessity of each of the parts of the article, are either self-evident or carefully explained. For example, a reader should not encounter a section of the article and not know the answer to the question, "Why is this section of the article here at all?"
  • They do not leave essential terminology unexplained, even within the article itself. If some piece of terminology is essential to the subject itself, then it should be explained in the article about that subject, even if it is also explained on another page as well. The reader should not have to visit other pages to view essential parts of the exposition of a subject (unless the article is very obviously mainly just a high-level introductory page that points to other articles).
  • They are written in an engaging manner. They do not use long, convoluted sentences and otherwise needlessly boring language.
  • They contain all the same basic sorts of information that other articles of the same kind(s) contain. All biographies, for example should contain birth and death dates, if known. Of course, Wikipedia is a long way off from having this sort of consistency and completeness right now.

That's all I could think of for right now. :-)

By the way, by no means do I think that anyone should try very hard to meet all of these various standards. Such perfectionism will just slow us down. I think it's very important that we add as much imperfect work to Wikipedia as possible. But I also think it can't hurt to keep in the back of our minds the various ways that this imperfect work can be improved. --Larry_Sanger