THRC Issues — infobox essay by Smerus

Note: Wikipedia user Smerus has sent me this infobox essay on the “top right hand corner” (trhc) and given permission to make it publicly available: Thrc issues – infobox essay by Smerus. Click to download or view in its original Word format. I have reproduced it below in the blog text format. –N

Thrc issues

Some notes from a sometime editor. The writer has been largely concerned with editing and creating articles on opera, classical music and topics related to the former Soviet Union, and the following is based in his experience in these areas. As noted, there are vast areas of Wikipedia outside these topics, and these are largely outside his competence (such as it is).

1. Types of trhc inputs

The top right hand corner (trhc) of a Wikipedia article is a favoured place for adding illustrative content (in words and/or pictures). A taxonomy of such additions, might run as follows (in approximately increasing level of information)
*nothing
*illustration with caption
*template
*infobox.
A template is a structured format providing links to related articles; it is normally found at the foot of articles, without an associated illustration (sometimes with more than one template per article); but some projects (e.g. WP Opera) favour using them in the trhc position – in WP Opera’s case, the template carries a picture of the composer.
An infobox is a structured format which contains, or claims to contain, a précis of the most relevant information about an article, together (normally) with an illustration. A variety of detailed infoboxes has been produced specific to different topics.
I don’t know where, if anywhere, one can obtain statistics about the use of these various formats, but I have just summoned up 20 random articles on WP, giving the following results for trhcs:
Nothing: 5
Picture/text only: nil
Template(s) only: 3
Picture and template: 2
Infobox only: 3
Infobox and template(s): 6
It may be worth mentioning the following further breakdown, based on the same sample:
Topic No. of articles Infobox
Sports and entertainment 9 4
Geographic locations 5 2
Institutions 2 2 (1 School, 1 Stock Exchange)
Scientific 2 1 (1 animal, 1 medical)
Other 2 0 (1 biography, 1 transient news item)

If these proportions are generally in line with Wikipedia as a whole, an important issue is raised at the outset: the arguments over infoboxes seem to have occurred, as far as I am aware, exclusively in articles relating to history, biography and music. Also as far as I am aware, none of the editors involved in these arguments (including myself) have expressed any interest in articles in the areas of sport and entertainment or geographic locations. Furthermore these statistics suggest that less than 50% of articles have infoboxes. Of course a different sample might give a different result – some research on all this would be welcome, as many of the ‘pro’ arguments relating to infoboxes have been on the basis of ‘people expect to see them’. The heuristic evidence is that, in the ‘academic’ articles in which infobox arguments have arisen, readers would have no such expectation.
In my further comments I make no comment on sports and entertainment articles; indeed I am in no way qualified or able to do so. I would however add that this area of WP seems to have I general a very different readership and editorship to the rest of WP, and maybe research should be done on this as well. Conclusions about infoboxes etc. relating to the ‘traditionally encyclopaedic’ part of WP may not be appropriate elsewhere.

2. Purpose/value of trhc inputs.
Contents of a WP article should be verifiable, and preferably cited where appropriate. Repetition of information in an article is deprecated, and can be justification for deletion – the exception to this being the contents of an article’s lead, which should summarize essential elements of the following text.
On such a basis, pictures/captions can clearly be relevant information, and a good illustration can appropriately ‘set the tone’ for the article as a whole.
A template can give relevant information, although it is not clear why it should ever be provided at the trhc position, as links to other articles are not of crucial value to the information provided in the article itslef. In WP Opera the justification of this has been (in essence) that it has been a tradition, which has been fostered and adopted by editors of the Project (including myself, although I now do not greatly sympathise with this usage, on which I will comment further below).
The use of an infobox is subject to several criticisms, particularly when applied to articles relating to what might be called the ‘liberal arts’, e.g. history, historical biography, music, literature. (I believe, for what it is worth, that there can be a clearer justification for infoboxes in, for example, scientific and geographical topics, where consensus taxonomies can give a clearer indication of agreed infobox criteria). The criticisms of ‘liberal arts’ article infoboxes include:
1) Repetition. They repeat information available immediately to their left in the lead section of the article.
2) Reductive quality. The selective inclusion of pre-specified items, inherent in the structure of an infobox, risks degrading the quality of the article as a whole and/or oversimplifying the topic for the reader and/or being misleading. All of these problems in fact make the article worse.
3) Incitement to overexpansion. Some fans of the infobox format get carried away, attempting to include a vast amount of information from the article, not all of it relevant or appropriate. (See, e.g. the articles on Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin; they were of course bound to crop up sooner or later :-} ).

3. Metadata arguments.
The use and/or introduction of infoboxes is sometimes promoted on the basis that they can convey metadata enabling other organisations (e.g. Google) to extract from them essential article information. I believe this is a red herring argument for a number of reasons:
1) WP does not have a mission to provide filleted information for third-parties
2) There is no safeguard to ensure that infobox data is accurate or relevant
3) If metadata provision is a priority, there is no reason why infoboxes should be used for this purpose.
4) But metadata provision is not a WP priority – it is, like infoboxes, an optional article element.
5) In any case, analytical algorithms are being developed which enable third-parties to parse article information directly from HTML; in this respect, infoboxes are already an outdated technology.
In conclusion, the metadata argument is irrelevant to the introduction, retention or removal of an infobox and should not be adduced during discussions on infobox usage for specific articles.

4.Criteria.
The criterion for any element of an article should be that it adds information value, and that it should be cited or citable.
In the thrc, a relevant illustration with text meets this criterion.
Templates at the thrc do not in my opinion, meet this criterion. Although in a sense they add information value, they rather tend to distract, by giving links to other articles. Moreover, as used at present by WP Opera they are clumsy and boring (showing consistently the same image of the composer). The general use of templates at the foot of articles seems to me to be appropriate.
Infoboxes (at least for ‘liberal arts articles’) do not meet this criterion. They repeat selective information, on a non-standardised and non–standardisable basis), and add nothing apart from the illustration which they (normally) contain, and which could stand alone as a illustration with explanatory text.
Other criteria which have been offered in support of the introduction of Infoboxes have included:
1) WP:OR arguments: -‘people expect them/like them/find them useful.’ There is no evidence base for this. It has tended to be a small and consistent body of editors that has asserted such arguments in discussions, but no comment from ‘causal readers’ is evident.
2) Metadata arguments – see above. These arguments have tended to be adduced by the same body of editors.
3) Alleged infraction of WP:OWN. This is another argument frequently adduced by the same body of editors. The terms of WP:OWN are misconstrued so as to imply that the editors principally responsible for an article which does not have an infobox should have no, or significantly lessened, weight in any discussion on introducing an infobox.
It may be added that these editors, in their arguments have been (with one notable and praiseworthy exception) have been notably free with their personal comments on other editors. The present editor has, for example, (without provocation or evidence) been called by them a liar, a bullshitter, a bully, and sexually aggressive, amongst other qualities. (Diffs available on request). For some reason, however, the recent arb case on infoboxes declined to pursue the matter of team bullying in infobox discussions and the perpetrators were not censured.

5. Solutions
Before and during the arbcase, two editors (one from the pro-, one from the anti-infobox camps) were cooperating on seeking common ground. (see 6. below). The former (User:GerdaArendt) has now been censured and restricted by the Arbcom. The latter (the present writer) has withdrawn from Wikipedia, for at least the medium term and possibly permanently, as a consequence of his profound concern at the conduct of the Arbcom proceedings. Whilst I will not pretend that I feel that Gerda’s fate is entirely unjustified, she at least conducted herself on a collegiate (if excessively effusive) basis throughout, which is more than others did (including myself on occasion).
However, now that (hopefully) tempers have calmed, it may be possible to have sensible case-by-case discussions when (and if) anyone proposes an infobox discussion.
I doubt that anyone can prescribe the basis on which such discussions should be constructed. ButI have suggested above my view on the validity and relevance of some of the different types of argument which have been used in the past.
6. Examples of experiments (now abandoned) include:
Sibelius symphonies.
I provided ‘informative pictures’ – that is, pix with a text which was more than a bland description – at the head of each article in the Sibelius symphony template (having previously suggested the pic for Sibelius 8, during FA review).. The intention was, rather than to use the same pic for each, to find some illustration which was suitable for each particular symphony, and to add a text which gave ‘added value’ to the article. Gerda adapted the pic for Symphony no. 1 into something which looks a bit ’infobox’-like. I don’t personally find that it offers any advance on the plain picture, as the words ‘Symphony no.1 Sibelius’ are also available in the article title and the article lead. Still it’s an option which could be discussed.
Robert le diable
I chose here an opera article which I had myself taken to GA level, and modified the ‘standard’ opera template so that it contained an illustration specifically relevant to the article. Two editors didn’t like it much (see talk page). Still, the principle could be discussed, including whether there should be a template there at all, instead of an ‘informative picture’.

Smerus 15.9.2013.

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