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A Wikipedia editor engaging in Wikilawyering by using formal legal terms in an inappropriate way when discussing Wikipedia policy

Wikilawyering is a critical term which describes various practices to be avoided in Wikipedia. It may refer to:

  • Applying a portion of a policy or guideline to achieve an objective other than compliance with that policy or guideline or its objectives. Particularly when doing so in a way that is stricter, more categorical or more literal than the norm.
  • Abiding by the letter of a policy or guideline while violating its spirit or underlying principles.
  • Asserting that the technical interpretation of the policies and guidelines should override the underlying principles they express.
  • Willfully misinterpreting policy or relying on technicalities to justify inappropriate actions.
  • Weaponizing policies, guidelines, noticeboards and other Wikipedia systems with the goal of deprecating an editor rather than of resolving a problem.

The term may also be used in other cases, e.g., when a person superficially judges other editors and their actions by jumping to conclusions and slapping labels while brandishing Wikipedia policies as a tool for defeating other Wikipedians rather than resolving a conflict or finding a mutually agreeable solution.

Wikipedia policies and procedures should be interpreted with common sense to achieve the purpose of the policy, or help with dispute resolution. Typically, wikilawyering raises procedural or evidentiary points in a manner analogous to that used in formal legal proceedings, often using ill-founded legal reasoning. It can serve to evade an issue or obstruct the crafting of a workable solution. In the legal field, lawyers may use technicalities to win a case. "Wikilawyering" can refer to emulating legal practices that may win a court case, but are likely not helpful for resolving disputes on Wikipedia, which is not a bureaucracy.

As another example, the three-revert rule is intended to prevent edit warring. An editor who reverts the same article three times day after day is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule, and can thus be sanctioned for edit warring.

The mild commonplace meaning[edit]

Wikipedia's policies and guidelines are written in a manner that usually is more fuzzy and open to interpretation than laws are. They create certain rules and principles which are applicable in many situations but are not a "how to write a good article" instruction, nor do they replace good decision making. So, the "rules" and guidelines are just a part of the decision making process, and there is usually latitude on how they are interpreted or to what degree they influence a broader decision. Also, without even getting into secondary sets of rules, there are about 73 official policy pages and about 280 official guideline pages, many that are obscure, unknown, overlapping, or with wording that is not carefully written. So, in those cases, whatever you are trying to do (such as win a debate or battle) you can probably find or interpret rules to help you win the battle though enforcing that rule is not per se the concern of yours. So, in those cases, your objective isn't to enforce the rule, but instead use the rule to achieve a different purpose or outcome. In short, you are using technicalities to achieve a different objective than what the rule was designed to restrict or enforce. While not a good thing, this is not some horrible rare behavior, it is a common practice and the most common meaning of "wikilawyering".

Related policies[edit]

All editors are expected to follow Wikipedia's policies and guidelines (P&G). Civil, succinct, and relevant analysis of P&G is not wikilawyering, but is the best way to mutually resolve disputes. On the other hand, when editors use irrelevant P&G technicalities to try to win a content dispute, WP:Consensus and WP:Disruption might apply. When editors use inappropriate P&G argumentation to drive other editors away from a discussion or perhaps even the project itself, WP:Bullying and WP:Harassment may be in play.

Degrees of severity[edit]

Types of wikilawyering vary in severity. At the mild end of the spectrum is just using technicalities to try to win on a content decision that is unrelated to the raised technicality. At the severe end of the spectrum is "weaponizing" the Wikipedia system to try to "get", deprecate or eliminate the presence of an editor for objectives related to personal or content battlers rather than to resolve the issue raised.

Use and misuse of the term[edit]

Some Wikipedians allege that the charge of wikilawyering is used, particularly by Wikipedians more influential than them, to avoid giving careful attention to their claims. It is also said that newer users tend to believe nuanced complex policy (particularly WP:Neutral point of view) conforms to their own point of view, and will repeatedly refer to policy rather than providing rationale for their edits.

The word wikilawyering typically has negative connotations, sometimes mild, sometimes more severe. Those utilizing the term should take care that they are not violating behavioral guidelines such as WP:No personal attacks and WP:Civility. Most important is to use it to discuss specific actions and not editors.

The types of wikilawyering vary from mild commonplace even inadvertent behavior to quite severe deliberate misuses of the Wikipedia policies, guidelines and systems. It can also be about a specific action or a broader characterization of the individual. So an assertion that it is occurring is not necessarily a strong accusation.

As with any critical term, care should be taken to, at most, criticize the practice or action and not attack the person. For example the message "Therefore I conclude that you are stretching the WP:What Wikipedia is not policy here beyond common sense, i.e., you are wikilawyering", while aggressive, is not an insult, but rather a pointer to an identifiable wikibehavioral pattern. Similarly, "This proposal is wikilawyering a bit, because ..." is a comment on the content or nature of the proposal, not on the personality or motives of its author or supporters.

Because reasoned arguments in a debate necessarily include both elements of fact and references to principles, disputants who lack such an argument sometimes try to undermine arguments they can not otherwise overcome by just tossing out the naked accusation that their opponent is a wikilawyer. This is not a good-faith tactic and does not foster a collegial consensus-seeking atmosphere. Therefore, any accusation of wikilawyering should include a brief explanation justifying use of the term.

Occasionally, editors who engage in semantic discussions about the language of a policy or guideline, or propose minor changes in the wording of a policy or guideline, will be accused of wikilawyering. In such cases, it may make sense instead to assume good faith and engage in the discussion productively rather than tar those editors with the wikilawyering brush. And simply being a stickler about Wikipedia policies/guidelines and process does not make an editor a wikilawyer; remember that Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee closely modelled on a court of law, a system of elections of administrators and bureaucrats, Featured Article and Good Article review procedures, and various other formal processes.

Another example of misuse of the term is when it is known that an editor is actually a lawyer. Sometimes the editor who is also a lawyer, is accused of wikilawyering simply because of how they explain their positions. However, simply being a lawyer does not mean that one is wikilawyering whenever they participate in discussion.

See also[edit]

Policies, guidelines and essays[edit]


Further reading[edit]