Wikipedia:Editing environment

This article describes the editing environment on Wikipedia, as described in various documents on Wikipedia, with links to the appropriate articles governing its jurisdiction. Described in particular are the facts about arbitration. This information can be helpful to WP contributors in understanding the editing process on WP, and the role for guidelines and policies.

There is no attempt here to assess the merits of how editing disputes are handled on WP, nor even whether in fact disputes are handled according to the precepts laid out by the WP documentation. The object is to present the situation as WP describes it, without intruding opinion or a particular point of view. The hope is that, by reading the following, a contributor will be able to handle controversy with a clear idea of what to expect.

This discussion is based entirely upon documentation from the English language version of Wikipedia. Its applicability to other language versions have not been taken into consideration.


Wikipedia articles can be edited anonymously by anyone, and contributed by anyone with an account (and anyone can create an anonymous account). A variety of policies, more specific guidelines, and less established essays are intended to "describe its principles and best-known practices", but are not "hard-and-fast rules". In fact, one of the policies of Wikipedia is Ignore all rules, which says: "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it."[1] That may sound liberating, but it is a freedom most safely exercised by the experienced. There is also a Be bold guideline that says "Just do it", but adds "...but please be careful".

It is encouraged that nontrivial changes in content of articles be discussed on the article Talk page to iron out wrinkles without huge numbers of changes back and forth on the Main page. Some behavioral rules are intended to protect the main page, the most obvious one being the three-revert rule that blocks contributors that engage in edit warring. Discussion of content is guided in part by the policies "What Wikipedia is not" and the Five "pillars" of Wikipedia. Cautions to control the temperature on Talk pages are provided: such as No personal attacks, WP is not about winning, Polling is not a substitute for discussion, and so forth. A behavioral guideline is provided to outline Talk page good practices and unacceptable Talk page behavior. The general concepts of Talk page politeness are subsumed under Wikiquette. Content disputes sometimes can be resolved using the noticeboard, or by formal resolution including mediation.

Although wise, these admonitions and processes do not always suffice, and content issues become mixed up with conduct issues. Talk pages may use policies as weaponry in battles over changes, exchanges called wikilawyering, that is, insisting upon the letter of a policy or guideline while violating its spirit or underlying principles. In the heat of debate, policies and guidelines can end up being used pejoratively to describe opposing viewpoints as soapboxing, as parochial POV (point-of-view) forks, original research, fringe theory, employing unreliable sources, or synthesis of sources to support conclusions they do not contain verbatim, or violating a precept of Wikipedia to "present facts, not to teach subject matter". Tempers rise and contributors lose sight of the goals of WP, instead to engage in duels of self-importance and gang enforcement. Impatience over content may lead to claims of bad conduct by one or the other disputing party. When conduct is seen as the issue, appeals for arbitration by Administrators or for arbitration by the Arbitration Committee result, requesting that the opposing parties be sanctioned. Once arbitration is invoked, content is no longer the issue, only conduct matters.[2][3]

Although almost anyone can edit articles on Wikipedia, sanctions result in exceptions: certain individuals are blocked partially or completely, temporarily or permanently, through actions of the Wikipedia administration from Wales on down. These blocking or banning actions tend to be hotly contested, and frequently are sought by contributors that have run into irresolvable conflict over content, or over personalities. It then falls upon individual Admins, or upon a consensus of Admins, or possibly upon ArbCom, to invoke a ban or block. It does occur that such decisions are arrived upon by conversations among Admins or ArbCom members not open to the public, or are made by individual Admins upon their personal assessment, and the results announced with only broad-brush explanation, and next to no attempt to provide a "legal" basis for the action based upon the Wikipedia policies and guidelines. These governing rules are held to be not hard-and-fast, but are to be handled with "common sense".[4][5]

More about arbitrationEdit

According to WP:

Any uninvolved administrator may, on his or her own discretion, impose sanctions on any editor working on a page within the area of conflict (or for whom discretionary sanctions have otherwise been authorized) if, despite being warned, that editor repeatedly or seriously fails to adhere to the purpose of Wikipedia, any expected standards of behavior, or any normal editorial process.[6]
Requests by contributors for formal arbitration by year. (Data from English Wikipedia.)
Average number of blocks/day each month in 2012. Data from English Wikipedia.

In principle, this authority extends only to certain subject areas,[7] but in practice it is used more widely, for example, using an Administrator's personal assessment of having achieved "community consensus" on the AN/I noticeboard.[8]

Besides this source of sanctions, a formal arbitration procedure exists. As shown to the right, the number of requests for formal arbitration cases has declined steadily with time, and the number of cases accepted for hearing has dropped to about a dozen per year. The reason for the declines are unclear. One explanation is that both arbitrators and litigants are becoming disenchanted with arbitration cases. In any case, the decline in arbitration cases, which use a formal proceeding, means that more reliance is placed upon the large number of bans/blocks exercised by individual administrators without formal arbitration. (In the first six months of 2012, Administrators applied an average of 350 blocks per day on English Wikipedia.[9])

The role of policies and guidelines is described by Wikipedia:

Although Wikipedia does not employ hard-and-fast rules, Wikipedia policy and guideline pages describe its principles and best-known practices. Policies explain and describe standards that all users should normally follow, while guidelines are meant to outline best practices for following those standards in specific contexts. Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.[10]

The liberty for Admins to exercise "common sense" and the Ignore all rules policy relieves rulings from strict requirement that they be based upon guidelines or policies. In other words, administration is not a "rule of law".[11] In addition, no requirements exist to insist upon in-depth explanation of rulings, and requests for clarification can be ignored.[11][12]

Appeals to Admins or to ArbCom do not result necessarily in narrow consideration of direct issues at hand. Rather, the scope of deliberations may be enlarged, or even diverted to interests of Admins and of ArbCom quite apart from community concerns. Wikipedia describes its concept of arbitration as follows:

Arbitration is not a court case - Arbitration is not a legal process with fixed approaches to problems: all actions and general conduct, not merely the direct issue, may be taken into account. A person's general manner, past actions or incidents, and the impressions of them by reasonable people, may all be used to guide the Arbitrators.[11] (Italics in original documentation.)

As a result, rulings and actions are free be taken that have no bearing upon the original matter brought for adjudication and instead, to the amazement of those making the appeal, result in actions concerning other issues entirely, never envisioned by the litigants. When ArbCom introduces issues of their own, these are entertained outside the formal framework that safeguards fact finding and organized discussion. In particular, ArbCom may focus their ruling upon their own ideas of "a person's general manner" and/or the "impressions of them by reasonable people",[11] quite apart from community opinion and not necessarily tied to specific events.

The role of arbitrators is further described by Wikipedia:

Arbitrators focus on the risk and benefits for the future, not on past issues.[11]

In other words, ArbCom is at liberty to rule based not upon "who said exactly what in the past",[11] nor upon what is before them, but preemptively, based upon ArbCom predictions of hypothetical future behavior that could affect the project.[13]

"Administrators are not referees."[14] According to the WP article Wikipedia, in practice, the Arbitration Committee is:

functioning not so much to resolve disputes and make peace between conflicting editors, but to weed out problematic editors...[15]

An appeals process exists, but overturn is unlikely except in cases of blatant misrule. One might naïvely expect that among the hundreds of administrators, a disputant might find some Admin that would find their protests worth consideration. However, shopping for any opinion (even neutral opinion) is considered to be forum shopping, campaigning or possibly votestacking (selective invitation of favorable support), considered to be deliberate disruptions of dispute resolution that are frowned upon. Use of e-mail to solicit opinion is called stealth canvassing and is "looked at more negatively" than contact via user talk-pages. Despite such restrictions upon finding support, it was found that indeed Admin support for litigants occasionally did occur, especially in cases of egregious abuse of authority. As a result of several wars between Administrators,[16] ArbCom passed an Enforcement Motion expressly to prevent any Admin from overturning a prior action by another Admin under the threat of immediate stripping of powers (deSysOpping). Consequently, any Admin protest over another Admin's actions is subject to a potentially tendentious review with a downside that strongly discourages such actions. That leaves a litigant with only a formal submission of an appeal to ArbCom or to Wales. It may be observed that ArbCom may be ruling upon an appeal of its own ruling, and Wales has little time to dig into disputes: "it is exceedingly unusual for him to intervene".[17]

Expert opinionEdit

Expert opinion may be, and often is, challenged on WP. Attempts by an expert to educate the unversed via an on-line article Talk page possibly will require long discussion. Talk-page participants may become impatient with explanations important to the expert, but seemingly counter-intuitive or not of obvious significance to others, and that may lead to Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents, or Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Enforcement. Once there, the deciding Admins or ArbCom may view an extended Talk-page exchange not so much as the expert's patient attempt at education, but more as evidence of unduly stubborn tendentious editing. This view is readily understood if one realizes that arbitrators are necessarily blind to content,[2] being restricted to adjudicating only behavior; for example, claims that the expert "doesn't get the point, but just persists in beating a dead horse". Imagine explaining a need for extended conversation to a panel of judges where content is explicitly set aside, and behavior is the focal issue![3][18][19][20]

The difference between edit warring as disruptive behavior and as an attempt to straighten out what an article says may depend upon who is considering the issue.[21]

Although edit warring in principle refers to Main-page editing, in practice it is considered disruptive editing to argue too much on the Talk page as well, especially by contributors not inclined to discussion, or finding themselves on the short end. For example, an expert's effort to persuade the unversed editors that their consensus is misplaced might be viewed as an action that "prevents other editors from reaching consensus"[22] or as "continuing to edit in pursuit of a certain point despite an opposing consensus".[23]

A possible sanction that may be imposed is a topic ban, which limits an author's ability to contribute in certain subject areas.

a topic ban covers all pages (not only articles) broadly related to the topic, as well as the parts of other pages that are related to the topic

Of course, a topic ban involves a judgement by some Admin(s) whether that topic has in fact arisen. Has a discussion of LBJ's pulling his dogs' ears strayed into "politics"? Is citing The Economist on the subject of men's fashion "economics related"? Is correcting a pre-existing typo a topic-ban violation? Discriminating between real and ersatz assertions of topic-ban violation requires subject-matter evaluation, a skill ArbCom explicitly disavows.[19]

The usual result of a topic ban is that any objection that a violation has happened leads to ANI, or to direct implementation of the sanction upon the sole judgment of an Administrator, without requirement for consultation or expertise. One may wonder how a matter of content can be determined like this, given the restriction that arbitration enforcement is set up only to address user conduct problems, not disputes about content.[24] However, WP is not about rules.

It most often is wise to avoid the deliberations of Administrators, and simply abandon article improvement when faced with continued opposition.[20]


ArbCom has carte blanche in adjudication, as indicated by the following freedoms: ArbCom is free to divert a case to any subject of their choosing.[25] They are empowered to rule preemptively based upon their conjectures about possible future activities.[26] They are free to ignore guidelines and policies in reaching a decision; their deliberations are articulated explicitly as not based upon the "rule of law".[27][28] They can consider or ignore facts selectively, and are free instead to adopt the mere opinions of those whose judgment they happen to value.[29]

With neither built-in safeguards nor standards, proper administration of Wikipedia depends 100% upon the integrity, good judgment, and responsiveness of its Administrators, particularly those in ArbCom.

References and notesEdit

  1. ^ This policy is linked to the "Fifth Pillar" of WP, Wikipedia does not have firm rules.
  2. ^ a b "Conduct and content disputes". Wikipedia:WikiProject Arbitration Enforcement/Standards and principles. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-25. "...arbitration enforcement is set up only to address user conduct problems, not disputes about content."
  3. ^ a b David A. Hoffman; Salil K Mehra (August 26, 2009). "Wikitruth through Wikiorder". Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper. SSRN 1354424. "The data show that Wiki-dispute resolution ignores the content of user disputes, instead focusing on user conduct."
  4. ^ "Use common sense when interpreting and applying policies and guidelines; there will be occasional exceptions to these rules. Conversely, those who violate the spirit of a rule may be reprimanded even if no rule has technically been broken." "Adherence". Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-25.
  5. ^ "The rules are principles, not laws, on Wikipedia. Policies and guidelines exist only as rough approximations..." "Wikipedia:The rules are principles". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-21.
  6. ^ Quoted from "Wikipedia:Arbitration Committee/Discretionary sanctions; Sanctions: Authorization". Wikipedia. 19 February 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-05.
  7. ^ For example, see affected areas and articles on probation and articles on community probation
  8. ^ In these circumstances "community" refers to those participants involved in a specific discussion on the AN/I noticeboard.
  9. ^ A list of blocks is maintained at List of blocked users.
  10. ^ "Wikipedia:Policies and guidelines". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-16.
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Arbitration is not a court case". Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-17.
  12. ^ "Requests for clarification". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-11-01. Arbitrators or Clerks may summarily remove or refactor discussion without comment.
  13. ^ In foreseeing the future as a basis for preemptive action, Arbitrators play the role of 'precogs' in the science-fiction work The Minority Report.
  14. ^ This is a quote from What these pages are not on the Administrators' noticeboard. This statement also is found at Wikipedia:Dispute resolution and in Wikipedia: Policies and Guidelines: Basic Overview
  15. ^ "Arbitration committee". Wikipedia: Rules and laws governing content and editor behavior. Wikipedia. 2 March 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-03.
  16. ^ WP refers to repeated overturns of decisions as wheel warring: "Reinstating a reverted action ("Wheel warring")". Wikipedia:Administrators. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-19.
  17. ^ "Wikipedia:Banning policy". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2013-12-15.
  18. ^ Phoebe Ayers; Charles Matthews; Ben Yates (2008). How Wikipedia works: and how you can be a part of it. No Starch Press. p. 399. ISBN 978-1593271763. Article content is not judged in arbitration cases, only editor behavior
  19. ^ a b "Expertise of the ArbCom". Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration. Wikipedia. 16 January 2012. Retrieved 2012-03-14. Arbitrators are not subject experts and the Arbitration Committee avoids ruling on content disputes.
  20. ^ a b A cautionary experience by an expert is detailed in Timothy Messer-Kruse (Feb 17, 2012). "The 'Undue Weight' of Truth on Wikipedia". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2012-02-14. concerning the treatment on WP of the 1886 trials related to the Haymarket riot.
  21. ^ Phoebe Ayers; Charles Matthews; Ben Yates (2008). How Wikipedia works: and how you can be a part of it. No starch Press. p. 403. ISBN 978-1593271763.
  22. ^ "Disruptive editors sometimes [use] several practices when disrupting articles:... Their edits are largely confined to talk-pages, such disruption may not directly harm an article, but it often prevents other editors from reaching consensus on how to improve an article." "Attempts to evade detection". Wikipedia:Disruptive editing. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  23. ^ "Rejects or ignores community input: resists moderation and/or requests for comment, continuing to edit in pursuit of a certain point despite an opposing consensus from impartial editors." "Signs of disruptive editing". Wikipedia:Disruptive editing. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 27, 2012.
  24. ^ See Content and conduct disputes. Exact quote: "Like the arbitration process itself, arbitration enforcement is set up only to address user conduct problems, not disputes about content."
  25. ^ "Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration". Retrieved 2012-05-31. all actions and general conduct, not merely the direct issue, may be taken into account
  26. ^ "Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration". Retrieved 2012-06-07. Arbitrators focus on the risk and benefits for the future, not on past issues.
  27. ^ "Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration". Retrieved 2012-05-31. Arbitration is not a court case Recently changed to read: Arbitration is not a legal process
  28. ^ "Wikipedia:The rules are principles". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2011-10-21. The rules are principles, not laws, on Wikipedia. Policies and guidelines exist only as rough approximations...
  29. ^ "Wikipedia:Arbitration/Guide to arbitration". Retrieved 2012-05-31. A person's general manner, past actions or incidents, and the impressions of them by reasonable people, may all be used to guide the Arbitrators.

General referencesEdit

See alsoEdit

  • Editorial discretion - discusses how common sense and Wikipedia policy dictates that editors must practice discretion regarding the proper inclusion of relevant and well-sourced content.
  • Editor integrity - discusses how editors have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of Wikipedia and respect intellectual property rights of the sources they draw upon when they create and improve encyclopedia pages.
  • The essence of Wikipedia – describes how Wikipedia is the harnessing of the collective intelligence and collaborative efforts of editors who hold opposing points of view, in an attempt to preserve all serious contributions which are reliably sourced.
  • The rules are principles - describes how policies and guidelines exist only as rough approximations of their underlying principles.
  • Wikipedia is a community - describes how there is nothing wrong with occasionally doing other things than writing the encyclopedia, and that community spirit is a positive thing.
  • Wikipedia is a volunteer service - discusses how editors on Wikipedia are mainly volunteers.
  • Criticism of Wikipedia#Editorial process - discusses level of debate, edit wars and harassment.
  • Wikipedia:WikiProject Women in Red

External linksEdit

This article incorporates material from the Citizendium article "Wikipedia#Editing_environment", which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License but not under the GFDL.