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. Sure, we get people who intentionally damage the project as well, but they're usually quite easy to deal with. They can be blocked from editing, as needed, with little fuss and generally no controversy.

Where we often see big controversies, though, is with editors who are unintentionally and often unknowingly disruptive while trying to help. This is where we sometimes see an unintended side effect of our (generally quite useful) notion of assuming good faith. Many editors have focused so much on this tenet that they have come to believe that good faith is all that is required to be a useful contributor. Sadly, this is not the case at all. Competence is required as well. A mess created in a sincere effort to help is still a mess. For that reason, it can become necessary for the community to intervene when an editor has shown, through a pattern of behavior, the likelihood that they are not capable of contributing in a constructive manner.

Everyone has a limited sphere of competence. Someone may be competent in, say, 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 and with their dignity intact.

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

There is a presumption that people who contribute to English Wikipedia have the following competencies:

  • the ability to read and write English well enough to avoid introducing incomprehensible text into articles. Wikipedia welcomes any text that is easy to understand but if a person's inability to use the English language prevents them from writing comprehensible text in articles or from communicating effectively with other members of the community, it can create problems for others.
  • 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 others and present rationales when questioned by others. A person should be able to collaborate with other editors, defend their editing when asked to do so, and be willing to abide by consensus.
  • the ability to understand their own abilities and competencies, and avoid editing subjects, articles, templates, and other pages where their lack of skill and/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." Wikipedia has a learning curve. 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. There is no expectation that editors have high English skills. Minor spelling and grammar mistakes can be fixed by others. If a person's inability to use the English language prevents them from writing comprehensible text in the article space then instead they can post a request to 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.
  • It does not mean that Wikipedia's civility policy does not apply when talking to people about required competence. Rude and uncivil comments may discourage the motivation of the targeted editor, raising their psychological barrier against recognizing their own mistakes or seeking to improve their 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 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 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, however, 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]