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Wikipedia:Competence is required

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Wikipedia is a big place, with many editors, all with their own opinions on how to do things. It seems surprising that we are able to work together functionally, but somehow this is what usually happens.

One of our core Wikipedia guidelines that facilitates this is assume good faith. It is good advice, reminding us that, when we disagree, everyone involved is (usually) trying to do what they think is best. We get people who intentionally damage the project as well, but they are usually quite easy to deal with. They can be blocked from editing as needed, with little fuss and generally no controversy.

More often, substantial controversies arise when editors unintentionally disrupt the encyclopedia while trying to help it. In such cases, they may not have been able to anticipate a potential for their edits to be disruptive in the first place. As a matter of course, their fellow editors are generally encouraged to assume good faith behind their actions. This principle should not be misconstrued to such an extent that good faith is considered all that is required to be a useful contributor; competence is required as well. A mess created in a sincere effort to help is still a mess that needs to be cleaned up. When patterns of behavior emerge that indicate an editor might not be capable of making constructive contributions to the encyclopedia, it may be necessary for the community to intervene.

Everyone has a limited sphere of competence. For example, someone may be competent in nuclear physics but incompetent in ballet dancing or vice versa. Some otherwise competent people may lack the skills necessary to edit Wikipedia. Rather than labeling them as "incompetent" in the pejorative sense, we should ease them out of the Wikipedia community as graciously as possible, with their dignity intact.

What is meant by "competence is required"?[edit]

Basically, we presume that people who contribute to the English-language Wikipedia have the following competencies:

  • the ability to read and write English well enough to avoid introducing incomprehensible text into articles and to communicate effectively.
  • the ability to read sources and assess their reliability. Editors should familiarize themselves with Wikipedia's guidance on identifying reliable sources and be able to decide when sources are, and are not, suitable for citing in articles.
  • the ability to communicate with other editors and abide by consensus.
  • the ability to understand their own abilities and competencies, and avoid editing in areas where their lack of skill or knowledge causes them to create significant errors for others to clean up.

What "competence is required" does not mean[edit]

  • It does not mean "come down hard like a ton of bricks on someone as soon as they make a mistake". We should cut editors (particularly new ones) some slack, and help them understand how to edit competently. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the wiki process.
  • It does not mean perfection is required. Articles can be improved in small steps, rather than being made perfect in one fell swoop. Small improvements are our bread and butter.
  • It does not mean one must be a native English speaker. Spelling and grammar mistakes can be fixed by others, and editors with intermediate English skills may be able to work very well in maintenance areas. If poor English prevents an editor from writing comprehensible text directly in articles, they can instead post an edit request on the article talk page.
  • It does not mean we should ignore people and not try to help improve their competence.
  • It does not mean we should label people as incompetent. Calling someone incompetent is a personal attack and is not helpful. Always refer to the contributions and not the contributor, and find ways to phrase things that do not put people on the defensive or attack their character or person. The extra effort required to do that is part of the job, and part of the responsibility of a good editor.
  • It does not mean that Wikipedia's civility policy does not apply when talking to people about required competence. Rude and uncivil comments are discouraging, and can raise psychological barriers against recognizing one's mistakes or improving one's skills.

Responding to suspected lack of competence[edit]

One must take care when responding to the perceived lack of competence in others. Be mindful of what incompetence is and is not. Incompetence is not lack of knowledge. Responding to competence issues requires care and understanding of the background of a situation.

  • Language issues: The English-language Wikipedia is the largest Wikimedia project, and for that reason, people will tend to come here first to contribute. Poor use of the English language can lead to perceived competence problems. Often, people may not be aware that there may be a Wikipedia in their native language, where they could contribute more effectively and where their contributions are needed. If problems seem to arise from a language barrier, consider directing the user to the Wikipedia in their native language.
  • Repeated mistakes: If a user is making repeated mistakes, verify whether the user has been given any advice or instruction in how to do things correctly. Most users want to contribute productively but simply may not know how to do so. If it appears no-one has explained a problem with their edits, doing so should always be the first step. There are two ways to explain mistakes, (a) direct explanation and (b) showing the better way. In either case, use their talk page to introduce yourself, provide diffs while explaining the problems, and direct them to further readings or to forums such as Wikipedia:Teahouse or Wikipedia:Help desk. In the vast majority of cases, this will be sufficient and no further action will be needed.
  • Alleging incompetence: It is generally inadvisable to call a person "incompetent" or their editing "incompetent". While being direct with problems is advisable, it is possible to be direct without being insulting. Telling people their work displays incompetence often does nothing to improve their work; it only serves to put them on the defensive, making them less receptive to instruction.
  • When all else fails: Sanctions such as blocks and bans are always considered a last resort where all other avenues of correcting problems have been tried and have failed. Before bringing an issue to the incidents noticeboard or another similar venue, you should have exhausted all reasonable attempts to communicate with the user and correct their behavior. Use their talk page, explain things to them, and demonstrate how to do things correctly. On rare occasions, after a pattern of behavior has been well established and a user shows they are unlikely to do things correctly, a block, topic ban, or full ban may be the only solutions that minimize disruption to the encyclopedia.

See also[edit]