|This page in a nutshell: Articles about one thing shouldn't mostly focus on another thing.|
A coatrack article is a Wikipedia article that gets away from its nominal subject, and instead gives more attention to one or more connected but tangential subjects. Typically, the article has been edited to make a point about something else. The nominal subject is functioning as an unregarded coat-rack, obscured by one or more "coats". A similar effect can result when an article’s original author writes too much about background and loses sight of the title. Either way, the existence of a "hook" in a given article is not a good reason to "hang" irrelevant, undue or biased material there.
- 1 Problems with coatrack articles
- 2 Typical coatracks
- 3 "But it's true!"
- 4 Fact picking
- 5 What to do about coatracks
- 6 What is not a coatrack
- 7 History
- 8 See also
Problems with coatrack articles
A coatrack article fails to give a truthful impression of the subject. In the extreme case, the nominal subject gets hidden behind the sheer volume of the bias subject(s). Thus the article, although superficially true, leaves the reader with a thoroughly incorrect understanding of the nominal subject. However, this does not include largely critical articles about subjects that actually are discredited; see the tips laid out at WP:FRINGE (Wikipedia:Fringe theories) for more information.
Enforcement of the policies on biographies of living individuals and what Wikipedia is not makes it clear that "coatrack" articles are a particularly pressing problem where living individuals are concerned.
Coatrack articles can be created purposefully to promote a particular bias, or they can accidentally evolve through excessive focus on one or more aspects of the subject. In either case the article should be corrected.
Coatrack articles run against the fundamental neutral point of view policy: in particular the requirement that articles be balanced. When a biography of a living person is a coatrack, it is a problem that requires immediate action. Items may be true and sourced, but if a biography of a living person is essentially a coatrack, it needs to be fixed.
Below are simplified sketches of some common types of coatracks in articles. (Of course, Wikipedia policies disallow texts like "a terrible general", but a "politically correct" way to say so would make examples much longer, up to the TL;DR threat.)
All About George
In an article about XYZ (a location in America)
George Washington visited/slept/worked/ate at XYZ; George Washington was a terrible general and a lousy President, he owned slaves, lied about chopping down a cherry tree, and… (many following paragraphs all about George with little if anything to do with XYZ).
While the article talks about XYZ and its relation to George Washington, it does so very briefly and quickly moves on to applying biased negative opinions ("a terrible general, a lousy President") and facts (perhaps George Washington did own slaves at the time: nonetheless, the presentation encourages the reader to miss contextual fact, that though now universally abhorred it was the norm at the time) and statements that are spurious, uncited, and unsourced (did he lie about chopping down a cherry tree? If so, can this be sourced?). The rest of the paragraphs that have little to do with XYZ – the main Article – itself and continue to "hang" other negative unsourced "coats" on this coatrack, leading to a biased, slanted article. Since the example here is linked to a person of high notability, the statements most likely will be called into question and/or deleted on the spot without discussion.
Better to just say "George Washington ate at XYZ on date", and link to a George-specific page. "General George Washington slept here during the XYZ campaign" is also reasonable, if being a military general on campaign was part of the reason he slept here. So is "Future President George Washington visited", because it briefly explains why someone might care that George Washington did so.
A Journalist Mentioned It in Passing
Amanda Pubilchep is a journalist. One day she wrote an article about Conspiracy Theory X. The main points of Conspiracy Theory X are as follows... followed by paragraph after paragraph about the conspiracy theory.
Some Famous Dude Did It so It Must Be Good
Jim B. Ean is a notable athlete/musician/actor. On Day XX/XX/XXXX (Day/Month/Year) he converted from religion X to religion Y. Isn't it nice how he saved his soul that way? Here are some more fun facts about religion Y, the greatest religion in the world: (endless paragraphs, and bullet lists describing the positive side of Religion Y)
This is "All About George" but in reverse, instead of having a Ultra-Negative bias (negative, unsourced comments, facts presented in a non-neutral fashion/light), this Coatrack has an Ultra-Positive bias (expounding on and singing the praises and all the positives about Religion Y, never mind the negatives) totally goes off the deep-end and leaves the rest of Mr. Jim B. Ean's Personal Life in the dust.
The Mono-Topic Fringe Biography
Dr. Fronkensteen is a doctor known for his extensive research pioneering wongo juice as a cancer cure … Article then glosses over normal biographical details, except when useful as appeal to authority, and instead focuses on material relating to wongo juice.
The Criticism Gambit
Criticism section used to connect otherwise unrelated issues.
A halibut is a species of fish. Brief factual information about halibuts.
It has been reported[crackpotreference][nutcaseblog][outofcontextquote] that halibuts may be evil invading robots from the planet Ko-trak. I shall now take this opportunity to give you a long lecture on extraterrestrial robots: … (Conspiracy Theories to follow).
The Attack Article
Wikipedia policy specifically prohibits articles whose primary purpose is to disparage a particular person or topic. Articles about a particular person or topic should not primarily consist of criticisms of that person or topic. For example:
John Doe works as a journalist. He has given over 30 years of long and faithful service to his newspaper. However, one day, he made the terrible mistake of nearly reporting an unchecked fact that came within a whisker of ruining an innocent person's life. Because he did this, he is an evil person. Here is some more information about this incident… (and so on, and so forth).
The Yo Mama Article
An especially nasty type of article also violates multiple taboos and Wikipedia rules, like a poorly written Yo Mama joke:
Marion Crane is the mother of Thomas Washington, an American politician of the Independent party, who had him when she was 16 years old and was an unwed teen mother. Crane raised him as a single mother, and ... (here are personal details and attacks about the poor, otherwise non-notable woman .... ).
The wolf, or Canis lupus is a mammal with fur. In this fur, there are many fleas. The flea is an insect of the order Siphonaptera which is wingless insect with mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood. Fleas are external parasites, living by hematophagy off the blood of mammals (including wolves and humans) and birds... (ad nauseam about all the different kinds of fleas there are in the world)
This sort of case begins with facts about the main topic (perhaps a type of flea which is specific to wolves), then launches into more sub-topics (still dealing with fleas, but on a much broader scale) about which the writer has prepared way too much information and may make occasional tangential reconnections (hopefully) to the original main topic ("Wolf") in an attempt to hide the coatracking. If the excess content is accurate and well-sourced, it may be appropriate to move it to a more relevant article (in this example, maybe "Flea").
"But it's true!"
The contents of this type of coatrack article can be superficially true. However, undue attention to one particular topic within the scope of the article creates an article that, as a whole, is less than truthful. When confronted with a potential coatrack article, an editor ought to ask: what impression does a reader unfamiliar with the topic get from this article?
- If an article about a famous journalist mostly describes a conspiracy article he once wrote, the reader will leave the article with the false impression that the journalist's career is mostly about that conspiracy theory, and possibly that he is a vocal advocate of the theory (which can cause major problems if the journalist is alive). The coverage of the journalist in Wikipedia needs to reflect the coverage of the journalist in reliable sources.
- An article might have a disproportionately large "criticism" section, giving the impression that the nominal subject is hotly contested by many people, when in fact the criticism is merely selected opinions. This, too, gives the reader a false impression about reality, even though the details may be true.
- If an article is mainly on a criticism of a person or a topic, critical sources must keep focus on the scope of the article. This type of coatrack can occur when an editor tries to discredit a person or a controversial topic rather than keeping focus on the aim and scope of the article (see WP:IDONTLIKEIT). For example, in Criticism of religion and Criticism of atheism, unacceptable material would include sources which focus too much on individuals. In articles which focus on criticism of an individual, such as Criticism of Muhammad, unacceptable material would include sources which extend too much beyond the individual, such as sources which focus on criticism of Islam in general. The same principle applies to sections within an article; critical sources must keep focus on the scope of the section and must not deviate from the subject at hand (for more information, see WP:CSECTION).
- For example: in Source 1, Alice says something related to Topic A. In Source 2, Bob says that Alice is a bad person. Source 2 should not be used to criticize Alice in an article on Topic A.
- In short, if something distracts too much from the focus, scope, and aim of the Wikipedia article, it is probably a coatrack.
Often the main tool of a coatrack article is fact picking. Instead of finding a balanced set of information about the subject (positive and negative), a coatrack goes out of its way to find facts that support a particular bias. As such, fact picking is a breach of neutral point of view by a failure to assign due weight to viewpoints in proportion to the prominence of each viewpoint in the published, reliable sources.
A common fact picking device is listing great numbers of individual people's quotes criticizing the nominal subject, while expending little or no effort mentioning that the criticism comes from a small fraction of people. That small fraction thus gets a soapbox that is far larger than reality warrants.
Even though the facts may be true as such, the proportional volume of the hand-picked facts drowns other information, giving a false impression to the reader.
What to do about coatracks
Responding to a coatrack article depends on the nature of the article. If the article discusses some second subject more than the subject in the title, and it's otherwise a good article, often the easiest solution is to simply rename the page so that its title matches its content. Then, re-format the article as required. As an example, the article once titled legal death did not discuss the law at all, and instead discussed how doctors declare a person as dead. In this case, the article was renamed to Medical definition of death.
If the coatracked content consists of bias and opinion, the best response is to be bold and trim off excessive biased content while adding more balanced content cited from reliable sources. In extreme cases, when notability is borderline, and if there is little chance the article can be salvaged, deletion of the entire article may be appropriate.
Editors are not required to fill out the article so that more time is spent on non-biased matters in order to keep biased content. Instead, editors may fix an article by balancing it out with more facts but are in no way required to do so. It is inappropriate to "even out the percentage of bias" by adding fluff, such as minute details of a subject's life. These are considered scarves, hats, and gloves, and along with the coats, obscure the coatrack, and are also good candidates for removal.
What is not a coatrack
An article about an astronaut might mostly focus on his moon landing. A moon trip that took only a tiny fraction of the astronaut's life takes up most of the article. But that does not make it a coatrack article. The event was a significant moment in the subject's life, and his main claim to notability. A reader is not misled by the focus on the moon trip. In some cases where an event in a person's life is the only notable thing about them, it may make sense to only have an article on the event and not have an article on the person at all. An article that presents factual information (including criticism) about a discredited scientific theory is also not a coatrack; relevant guidelines are at WP:FRINGE.
An article with a title that can have several meanings, or a term that is used differently in different fields of study, is not a coatrack if it only covers one definition. In this case, the article should be properly framed by beginning with " topic Y is…" or by using a specific title possibly using parenthetical disambiguation, to show the article's limited scope. When the article is properly framed this way, it is not necessary to expand the article to cover every possible usage for balance – that content can be added over time and either merged or split through normal editing.
It would be reasonable to include brief information of the background behind a key detail, even if the background has no direct relevance to the article's topic, as long as such information is used sparingly and does not provide any more explanation than a reasonably knowledgeable reader would require. An article on the anatomical feature Adam's apple could explain that the term arose from the biblical character Adam; a regurgitation of the Book of Genesis, or an outline of the full story of original sin would not be necessary.
Material that is supported by a reliable, published source whose topic is directly related to the topic of the article, is not using the article as a coatrack.
The use of coatracks, though not the term, dates to the influential 18th century French encyclopedia Encyclopedie, where they were used to hide biographies. The editors of the Encyclopedie were ideologically opposed to biographies, thinking too much ink had been spilled on hagiographies of "Great Men" (kings, church fathers) instead of the common person, and largely banned biographies; dissenting contributors would then hide biographies in other articles – for example, a biography of Isaac Newton was hidden in the entry on Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, his birthplace. Conversely, encyclopedias which were centered around biographies of prominent figures would embed social histories in their biographies; e.g. the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica presents all information on the post-Roman "Migrations Period" of European History under the biography of Attila the Hun.
- Wikipedia:Be neutral in form
- Wikipedia:Masking the lack of notability
- Wikipedia:Fringe theories
- Wikipedia:Stay on topic
- Wikipedia:No trojan horses
- Encyclopédistes (1751). Diderot, Denis; d'Alembert, Jean-Baptiste (eds.). Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers [Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts] (in French). 17 (1 ed.). France: André le Breton, Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson. pp. 630–635. Retrieved 8 July 2013.