The Sub-editor Report for 2001

2 Conversations

A644780 | A645040 | A645059 | The Sub-editor Report for 2001 | A652466


The purpose of this article

In this article we intend to deal with the subject of h2g2's hard-working volunteer Sub-Editors, and to weigh up the different methods used. We will also look at the tools that we use, the support that we get, and how things are developing over time, and also how the process appears to the authors.

Service with a smile, or behind closed doors?

Who's this 'we' that you refer to?

  • U177581is a Sub-editor, Ace, Guru and Scout who has been around in his current form since a month or two after the BBC takeover. He has sub-edited many Entries, but does not often write his own for the Edited Guide. Originally from Warwickshire is a student in Oxfordshire, England. His favourite smiley is smiley - cake

  • U176920 is an author who does not form part of an official h2g2 volunteer scheme. She is a member of the Musicians' Guild and writes mainly on the subject of music. Previous Edited Entries written by Catwoman include 'How to Fail as a Pop Group' and 'Furball - The Band'. She is a teacher in Devon, England. Her favourite smiley is, understandably, smiley - cat

An insider's view

What the job entails

Sub-editors take entries that have been entered into Peer Review, recommended by the Scouts and approved by the Editors at h2g2, and prepare them for inclusion in the Edited Guide. This process is further described at the Sub-Editors' page.

How much work is required

The usual thing is for a Sub to receive four Recommended Entries per month, to complete and return within one month. These entries can be anything from a few short paragraphs to reams and reams of work. This may sound unfair, but on the whole, if an entry is very long, the quality of language and GuideML is usually exceptional. Strangely, the average length of Recommended Entries is steadily increasing all of the time, as this graph from the towers shows:

This means that the workload on Subs is continually increasing, or is it? Whoami? suggests that 'The quality of Entries that I am Subbing is increasingly hard to find fault with'. It's probably quite difficult to actually prove or even measure this, so we won't. Anyway, from Whoami?'s experience, a batch of four entries takes about six hours to finish all-in, including troubleshooting with the authors.

The Toolkit

When a Sub-editor deals with a recommended article, he simply has to edit the entry like any that he had written himself. For support, there is a private mailing list, where the Italics and other Sub-editors will repond to queries. This system replaces the older system that relied heavily on the copying and pasting of code into emails, that was unfriendly and accident-prone. Now, the whole system runs fairly smoothly, and the entry is returned to the Towers by clicking a special button on the page, and typing any comments into a popup window.

Why do it?

Sub-editing other people's writing is hard work, but it has many advantages. The first is that it provides an opportunity to learn about new subjects. Also, the job benefits from experience, as the writing styles of authors become clearer. Besides that, the other Sub-editors are really nice, helpful people, and you get a nice, shiny badge on your Personal Space for your troubles.


One of the biggest problems faced by the Sub-editor is whether or not to contact the author of the article. There are 3 distinct possibilities on this one:

  1. Contact the author of every article. Discuss changes and alterations, find out more about the writing style of the author.
  2. Contact the author if necessary, to solve problems. Otherwise, deal with Entry alone.
  3. Never contact the author. Deal with any problems without consultation.

The first idea is more work, but is often useful. It centres upon the idea that the person who knows the Entry best is the author. The third one takes the line that the Entry becomes the BBC's property, and so the author no longer has any further role in its development. This is the legal standpoint, but is it the best? Allow us to give a few examples:

  • When Whoami? subbed the entry 'Jet Engines', there were co-authors to credit. Due to a fault in the subbing system that has now been picked up, if he had not contacted the author credited with the article, the others would have gone uncredited.
  • When Whoami? processed the entry 'Number Systems', contact enabled a few questions regarding formatting of numbers to be dealt with efficiently, although the thread that they were on has gone astray...

From the Outside

What outsiders see of the Sub-editors

With such a large number of volunteer Sub-editors the contact between them and the Researchers whose entries they are working on is naturally variable.

The experience of Catwoman in having (currently) five entries make that journey from personal space, through Peer Review and the editing process to the edited guide falls somewhere within the second and third possibilities. She has had contact with all five editors, but in each case the contact was initiated by her, either to enquire as to the current state of the entry or to point out errors that have occurred before or during the process. Only the Sub-editors themselves can say whether they would have contacted her had the need arisen, but as it stands, none of them did. To balance the argument somewhat, it should be noted that the Sub-editor for Catwoman's sixth (up-and-coming) entry initiated contact before even starting work on it. That particular Sub-editor happened to be none other than Whoami?, and it was partly the conversation between Catwoman and Whoami? that produced this entry.

What happens to the entries

When researchers receive that much sought after posting telling them that their entry has paid its dues in Peer Review and has been recommended by a Scout, it is a time of celebration. For the researchers who have complete faith in the editors, or who have lost interest in their entry, the only remaining thing to do is sit back and wait for the ultimate prize: 'Congratulations! Your h2g2 Entry has been Approved!' But not all researchers are that way inclined, indeed many invest significant quantities of time ensuring the entry is as good as they can make it, and are naturally curious about the changes that will befall their hard work.

When an entry has been edited a duplicate appears listed alongside the original with two significant changes: There is no 'edit' option for the author, only the Sub-editor, and the title has been suffixed by the magic word 'pending'. It is at this time that the Researcher can re-read the entry, trying to spot changes and check for any mistakes. The Sub-editor can, at this point, notify the Researcher of any changes - if not to gain approval, then at least out of courtesy. Without contact a Researcher may even go so far as to directly compare the Edited and Unedited Entries. Either way, with any luck there will be few or no alterations to question or mistakes to correct, and the entry can proceed on its way to the front page.


Sadly this is not a perfect world and not all Sub-editors are perfect (for the sake of balance we'll say that Researchers are sometimes far from perfect also). Changes in the entry's style can be dismissed with a casual shrug and a muttered 'Oh well, I thought it looked better my way.' or a 'That looks much better than my way of doing it!' But what about changes to the entry's content? Spelling mistakes, errors in grammar or (more usually) minor misinterpretations can be pointed out to the Sub-editor who, at least in Catwoman's case, has responded cheerfully and has made the necessary corrections without further quibble. But this is not always so with other Researchers and their Sub-editors.

[Case study removed due to fundamental inaccuracy]

Further Information

Authors and Subs together

Do you consider it important that a Sub contacts the original authors of an Entry? Are you an author or a Sub with a tale to tell? You can do so here, with the forum below! We would love to hear from you, we'll be reviewing the entry at some point in the future.

How many Subs use each work method?

By means of a poll, involving around one-third of Sub-editors at the time, it was discovered that almost half claimed always to contact the authors of their Entries. About a quarter said that they sometimes did. One-sixth claimed that they only contacted the authors on occasion, while the same amount only talked to their authors if there was a problem. However, no-one admitted to never contacting anyone.


What line needs to be taken?

With over 90,000 registered Researchers, the experience span of Researchers is enormous, from the experts in their particular fields wishing to share their knowledge with the rest of h2g2 to those who just want to have an entry in the Edited Guide, regardless of content. The trick for a Sub-editor (or so it seems) is to be an effective judge of where within the span a Researcher falls, but surely politeness dictates that an author be allowed to preview her/his work before the rest of the world. This is certainly the line taken by Whoami?. While he doesn't necessarily rely upon the author being totoally in agreement with all changes, he likes to think that the writer knows more than he does about the subject. A secondary issue for those Sub-editors who fall into category 2 is to judge what constitutes a 'problem', and whether the problem is theirs (a misunderstanding of part of the entry) or the Researcher's (a lack of clarity in the original entry).

Lack of contact between researcher and Sub-editor not only increases the 'us-and-them' divide between the two parties but also would seem to mock the term 'community', a word so often used in the context of h2g2. Since h2g2 is generally such a wonderful community, it would seem only right that the Subs should be working in partnership with the authors, who put hours of effort into producing the finest possible Entries.

What needs to change?

Before the overhall of the Peer Review system a few months ago entries that had been 'scouted' appeared in duplicate form on the researcher's personal space with a 'recommended' tag, giving them the opportunity to view the editing as a work in progress. The current system omits this stage with the 'pending' article appearing some time after its recommendation, thus denying the researcher any part in the process, unless they are contacted by the Sub-editor. Maybe the advantages of author contact need to be stressed to the Sub-editors.

How well does it all work?

Catwoman's personal experiences in this area have been very good, despite the lack of contact from Sub-editors - all her entries have gone from Peer review to the edited guide with little or no alterations. Having read about the experiences of some other researchers she feels herself to be very fortunate in this respect. Meanwhile, Whoami?, despite having contacted every author, and made changes as he feels necessary, has never had a dissatisfied customer. The system does produce the required thirty new Entries per week, but there is certainly room for improvement.

This entry was completed in November 2001

Bookmark on your Personal Space



Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry


h2g2 is created by h2g2's users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the Not Panicking Ltd. Unlike Edited Entries, Entries have not been checked by an Editor. If you consider any Entry to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please register a complaint. For any other comments, please visit the Feedback page.

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more