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.
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
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,
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.
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:
- Contact the author of every article. Discuss changes and alterations, find
out more about the writing style of the author.
- Contact the author if
necessary, to solve problems. Otherwise, deal with Entry alone.
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
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
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
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
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.