The Sub-editor Report for 2001

5 Conversations


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?

  • U177581 is 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


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

    ', 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

    ', contact enabled a few questions regarding formatting of numbers

    to be dealt with efficiently, although the thread that they were on has gone


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.

One such case is that of U114627 and his entry on The Coriolis Effect. During the editing process a further

example of the effect was added in an attempt to make it clearer. Unfortunately the

example was used incorrectly and the Researcher took exception to the Sub-editor

implying that they were equally knowledgable on the subject. The Researcher

obviously knew his stuff as the original (unedited) Entry was extremely well-informed

and composed - attempting to add to an entry that had been through many revisions

and rewrites by the author (not to mention a rather hard time in Peer Review) was

probably a mistake. The resulting discussion provides evidence of just how dedicated some Researchers are and the conflicts that

may arise in their cases.

In that particular case the Entry almost made it into the Edited Guide (it was listed

as 'pending') before the error was spotted by the diligent author, something that surely

would not have happened if contact between the two parties had been


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 in the forum found here. 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


The original entry (which was completed in November 2001)

may be accessed Here.


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