Wikipedia:Changing policies and guidelines

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This idea in a nutshell:
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Do not change a policy or guideline in a way that would change the results of current or past disputes without prior discussion. Be bold in making policies and guidelines clearer or in updating them for new situations.

Wikipedia has policy and guideline pages to serve as dispute resolution aids. For disputes that occur repeatedly, policies and guidelines serve as a record of the consensus for how to resolve them. Pointing at settled policy allows editors to spend less time in disputes and more time making the encyclopedia better.

It is important to understand that Wikipedia policies and guidelines are wiki pages themselves, so they can be edited. And policies and guidelines change over time. This policy provides guidance on how policy and guideline changes should occur.

For the purpose of this policy, a policy page is defined as any Wikipedia official policy, guideline, or style guide that has previously gained consensus.

Purpose of policy pages[edit]

Policy pages are intended to assist in dispute resolution. In theory, Wikipedia could exist entirely without them. When a dispute arose, editors in good faith would discuss the issue, come to a resolution, and move on.

In reality, however, there are many issues that come up repeatedly. Policy pages are preferred to disputing the same issue each time it comes up for many reasons, including:

  1. Efficiency: We are here to write an encyclopedia, not to dispute amongst ourselves. Policy pages allow precedent to be set so that editors can spend more time doing the real work of writing an encyclopedia and less time hashing out the same disputes repeatedly.
  2. Consistency: Wikipedia is much too large for any single editor to keep tabs on every editing dispute. Without policy pages, it is highly likely that a dispute could go one way on one article's discussion page, and a dispute on the very same issue could go the other way on another article's discussion page. This would be confusing for the readers of the encyclopedia, who have a reasonable expectation of editorial consistency from one article to another. Policy pages encapsulate dispute results outside of any single article and thus provide consistency across articles.
  3. Education: Policy pages allow newer editors to learn about common disputes and their resolutions. Editors who have read the policy pages can keep from repeating old disputes in their own editing, and can assist in resolving future disputes.
  4. Enforceability: Without policy pages, disruptive users might feel free to engage in the same dispute again and again, moving from article to article. Policy pages allow editors to "invoke a higher authority" in warning disruptive users to stop. In this sense, policy pages help not just with article editing disputes, but with disputes between users as well.

Two ways to change policy[edit]

There are two ways to change a policy page:

  1. Get consensus, then change. First, start a new topic on the policy page's talk page, describing the change you wish to make. If necessary, publicize the proposal more widely. Get feedback on the change. Once consensus is reached on the change, edit the policy page to incorporate it.
  2. Boldly edit in the change. Just edit the policy page and make the change. If it is reverted or modified, go to the discussion page and discuss the change and get consensus before reincorporating it. (In articles, this is known as the "BOLD, revert, discuss cycle".)

As an editor, you must decide which of these to use. It is always allowable to get consensus first. It is not always allowable to make your change before getting consensus. This policy is about deciding which of these methods to use to incorporate your change.

To decide, you need to understand several factors: how important the change you're making is, how your change will influence the results of current and future disputes, and whether or not your change would have made a difference in past disputes.

Relative importance of guidance[edit]

There are hundreds of policy pages within Wikipedia, consisting of thousands of items of guidance: actionable rules that can be pointed to in resolving a dispute. Not all of these points of guidance are equal, however, even within a single policy page. Some guidance is more important and less subject to exceptions than other guidance.

Guidance can be ranked in importance based on its importance to the Wikipedia community. From most important (and most inviolate) to least important (and least inviolate):

  • The essential guidance of the five pillars policies
  • The essential guidance of the simplified ruleset
  • Guidance endorsed by the Arbitration Committee (the more often the guidance is re-endorsed by the Committee, the more important the guidance becomes)
  • Other guidance of official policies
  • Guidance of Wikipedia guidelines, including style guides

Guidance can also be ranked in importance by how it came into being on a policy page. From most to least important:

  • Guidance specifically considered and decided by Jimbo, the Board, or Developers
  • Guidance specifically considered and decided by the Arbitration Committee
  • Guidance reached by consensus of the Wikipedia community in which many editors registered their opinions (whether or not a vote took place)
  • Guidance reached by consensus following a dispute on the policy page's talk page
  • Guidance reached by describing the current consensus of Wikipedia editors and administrators, such as by stating the consensus of a dispute on an article's talk page
  • Guidance that was added to a policy page without prior discussion and has remained stable for some period of time (the longer the period, the more important the guidance becomes)

Finally, guidance can be ranked by its applicability: guidance that affects many current and potential articles, editors, and disputes is more important than guidance that affects very few articles, editors or disputes.

These three yardsticks are rough measures, but should be used together in considering how important (and hence inviolate) a point of guidance is. The more important a point of guidance is, the more prior feedback you should get before changing it.

Results of guidance[edit]

The result of any policy page guidance is how it settles disputes.

Very important guidance will trump the personal opinions of editors involved in any dispute. For example, even if a hundred people involved in a dispute wanted to set aside the neutral point of view policy, the one person who opposed ignoring the policy would be correct, because NPOV is a very important policy to Wikipedia. On the other hand, if a particular article's content would be better served by slightly deviating from a spelling rule in the Wikipedia Manual of Style, it is possible that the result of that dispute could be to ignore the style guidance, because style guides are less important.

Before changing a policy page, you must consider the results of that change in settling disputes. If your change would not have any effect on any disputes past or currently in progress, you should feel free to make the policy better by introducing your change. Fixing spelling or grammar, making the policy more accessible to new editors, adding or updating examples, or clarifying the language so that it does not have absurd results (which would be ignored in an actual dispute anyway) are all examples of changes that will not effect results.

However, any change to guidance that would change the results of past or current disputes must be discussed first. Obviously, no editor can be aware of every dispute that has ever gone on, or even every dispute currently in progress. So it is possible that a change that you think will have no effect on dispute results will get reverted by another editor who has seen the matter in actual dispute. Do not re-revert any substantive change to guidance without prior discussion.

Occasionally, editors involved in disputes elsewhere have modified policy guidance to back up their claims. Modifying policy pages to influence a current dispute without prior consensus is absolutely unacceptable behavior. Not only will your modification be reverted, but you could be blocked from editing for such behavior.

Definition of dispute[edit]

For the purposes of this policy, a "dispute" can be considered as any case when at least two editors have in good faith specifically considered an issue and have come to different conclusions. It is sufficient, but not necessary, that the issue has been argued on a talk page. For example, if one editor changes the spelling of a word in an article with the edit summary "fixed preferred spelling", and another editor reverts the change with the edit summary "rv—original spelling was correct", this can be considered a dispute.

Merely changing text already in an article is not necessarily a dispute. For example, if you noticed several cases of an incorrect reference style, you could add new guidance to a policy page to clarify the correct style without prior discussion, so long as your edits have not been reverted or disputed on a talk page.

No free pass[edit]

You are not entitled to make a change to a policy page, even if your change does not affect dispute resolution. Just because you made a change that does not change the results of editing disputes does not mean that the change must be left in place. Other editors are free to modify or revert your change if they feel it does not make the policy better. In such cases, the same processes we use for article disputes apply: take the issue to the policy page's talk page, discuss the issue, and get consensus.

New or exceptional circumstances[edit]

From the above, you might surmise that you are free to add language to policy pages dealing with new cases that have not been disputed yet, or to describe exceptions that already have wide use. While this is true, avoid turning policy pages into laundry lists of every imaginable controversy. If policy pages are to be useful in resolving disputes, they must be accessible documents that offer clear and actionable guidance. Lists of guidance that is never needed dilute a policy page's effectiveness. If a dispute has not yet come up after millions of edits, it will likely never come up, and adding a resolution for it to the policy page will not be useful.

We assume that editors are acting in good faith, and will use common sense, so adding guidance to specify something that editors would do anyway is unnecessary.

Publicizing change proposals[edit]

In some cases, a proposed change in guidance is major enough that just seeking consensus on the policy page's talk page is not sufficient. If the change would:

  • alter the overall "spirit" of the policy or guideline;
  • surprise editors who are aware of prior guidance;
  • likely result in a great deal of "editing churn" as many articles are changed to comply; or
  • overturn a prior consensus,

it can be considered a major change. Proposed major changes must be publicized appropriately. Start by creating a new topic on the policy page's discussion page. If a rough consensus develops around the major change, post an announcement of the proposed change to Wikipedia:Village pump (policy), to allow those not watching the policy page to weigh in. Allow a few days for objections before incorporating the change into the policy page.

Depending on the change, you may want to consider publicizing the proposal other places as well, such as noticeboards, project pages and portal discussion pages. Do not spam—you are not looking for people to support your proposal, but rather making sure that no one can say they were caught unaware by it.

Remember that editors are busy people who want to spend time working on the encyclopedia. Most do not spend a lot of time monitoring policy talk pages. If you want to see a major change incorporated, it is your responsibility to make sure that editors with an interest in the issue have an opportunity to consider it.

If you are aware of a current dispute that a proposed change would affect, you should post an announcement of the proposed change to the talk page where the dispute is taking place. "Swooping down" on a dispute in progress and announcing after the fact that the matter has now been settled by policy is bad form.

Actionability of guidance[edit]

Since policy pages are (usually) unprotected, it is possible that at any given moment the current version of a policy page will contain guidance violating this policy—changes that alter the resolution of disputes but were not properly discussed first.

It is good practice, when checking a policy for guidance on a current dispute, to go into the policy page's history and see if the guidance has remained stable for some period of time before taking action based on the guidance. If the guidance is new or recently changed, feel free to revert it. Use the edit summary or policy page's talk page to draw attention to the dispute in progress. "New" and "recent" are not explicitly defined; use common sense, and don't be disruptive to make a point.

Stable guidance is assumed to have consensus. Edits to all Wikipedia pages, including policy pages, are iterative, each building on the prior revision. Ripping long-standing guidance out of a policy page because of a later claim that consensus was not reached could leave the policy incoherent. If you feel a long-standing point of guidance was not properly considered before being added or changed, discuss it on the policy page's talk page. Do not simply ignore the guidance.

Exception[edit]

This policy does not apply to policy changes made by or at the explicit direction of Jimbo Wales, the Board, or the Developers. They are explicitly permitted to change policy as they see fit, without regard to the results of current or past disputes.

See also[edit]