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.

Clearly, every editor is incompetent when doing some types of edits in certain subject areas, so it is important to know or discover your limitations.

Compared to good faith

Assuming that people are trying to help seems trivial—but if someone is unable to help or is sometimes helpful but at other times disruptive, their edits may cause a net loss to the project. The proverbial bull in a china shop might have good intentions, but he's clearly bad for business. We always must value the project as a whole more than we value the contributions of any individual editor.

So, the next time someone posts on a noticeboard saying "Editor Example is causing problems—here are the diffs to demonstrate this", or "Disruptive editor Example is asking for an unblock", think twice before just "Assuming good faith". The person making the complaint is probably already assuming good faith, and they're concerned about a lack of competence, not a lack of good faith. Both competence and good faith are required to edit usefully. If an editor has already demonstrated incompetence that causes disruption, no amount of good faith can fix the problem resulting from the editor's lack of competence.


Most of us were pretty incompetent at editing Wikipedia when we started. We might not have understood wikicode, we might not have signed our posts, or we may not have fully appreciated exactly which sources are reliable. The great thing about this situation is that it's easily fixable. Help the newbies understand what we do here, and soon they'll be making themselves useful. Further information: Wikipedia:Do not bite the newcomers.
The best good will is for naught if a basic understanding of the facts, their mainstream interpretation, and their cultural context are lacking.
Some people just can't function well in this particular collaborative environment. We can't change Wikipedia to suit them, so if they're unable to change themselves, they'll need to be shown the door politely but firmly.
Some behavioral issues and personality traits may be correlated with the inability to collaborate civilly in an environment in which such collaboration is essential. The Wikipedia community assesses editors solely on the basis of their actions within Wikipedia. Blocking an editor who has demonstrated that they are unable to participate in Wikipedia is not discrimination on the basis of disability (if one exists), even if that disability contributes to their failure to participate. Wikipedia is not therapy.
Some editors hold personal opinions so strongly that they cannot edit neutrally and collaboratively with other editors. If this continues to be disruptive and a user is unable to step away from topics where they have strong biases, a topic ban is generally appropriate. Try this first before going for a site ban, because some people can make valuable contributions in places other than their pet topic. It is often very difficult to see one's own biased editing, though it is easy to see that of others.
Language difficulty
If someone's native language is not English and they may not be able to communicate in English well—including discussing things with other editors—consider trying to encourage them to edit a Wikipedia in their own language. Those other-language Wikipedias need help from editors too.
There is also the problem of editors whose command of English is sufficient for colloquial use, and who can make themselves understood on talk pages and in other informal circumstances, but who do not write sufficiently well in English that their contributions to articles are acceptable. These editors could also be encouraged to edit the Wikipedia of their native language or other languages they are more conversant with, and to limit their contributions on English Wikipedia articles to edits that do not require writing in English or to work with native speakers to improve their contributions.
Editing beyond one's means
Some people aren't able to grasp the subtleties of how Wikipedia works. They may be able to do some straightforward jobs, but they run into trouble in more complex or contentious areas. Encourage them to keep to the simple things, or suggest a break if they're getting frustrated about their edits getting reverted or getting into contentious interactions with other editors.
Lack of technical expertise
Insufficient technical knowledge is not usually a problem, except when editing technical content. Not everyone needs the same skill set—and as long as people operate only where they're capable, differences in skill sets are not a problem.
Some people get so upset over a past dispute that they look at everything through a lens of "So-and-so is a bad editor and is out to get me." Taken to extremes, this becomes quite disruptive. An enforced parole of "don't interact with this other editor" may be worth trying in these cases.
Non-incremental changes
Some enthusiastic new editors combine multiple diverse article changes into one large edit or rapid series of edits. If reverted, at the talk page they start talking about everything at once, which renders methodical progress impossible. Try asking these editors to present their desired changes, their reasoning, and their reliable sources for just one paragraph at a time, or for just one paragraph per subsection heading. Editors who are capable of collaboration—a necessary skill to edit Wikipedia—will understand and appreciate the advice. Those who continue to talk about everything at once probably lack the required ability to collaborate.

What "Competence is required" does not mean

  • 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 we should ignore people and not try to help improve their competence.
  • It does not mean we should label people as incompetent. For example, we do not say "You are incompetent because you don't know anything about the subject of this article."
  • It does not mean that Wikipedia's civility policy does not apply when talking to incompetent people. 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.
  • Finally, it does not mean we will give any good-faith editor an infinite number of opportunities to make themselves useful. If, after an appropriate amount of time and coaching, someone still isn't competent, don't make a heroic effort to defend them. Cut them loose, and focus your mentoring efforts on a better candidate.

Responding to suspected lack of competence

One must take care with 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.

  • If a user is making repeated mistakes, verify if the user has been given any training 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. Use their talk page to introduce yourself, explain what the problems are, 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.
  • If a user has made a mess of things, consider fixing it yourself, and then (by using diffs and detailed explanations) leave them a note explaining the problem and how you fixed it. Demonstrating how to do things by example will help most users without much trouble.
  • The English Wikipedia is the largest such 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 times, people may not be aware that there is likely 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.
  • 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. However, in rare occasions, if the user, over a long pattern of behavior has been established, has shown that they are not capable of learning how to do things correctly, a block or ban may be the only solutions to minimize disruption to the encyclopedia.

Local and global competence

Most everyone has a specific circle of competence, an area in which they possess the knowledge and expertise to contribute effectively. At the same time, each person necessarily has areas which fall outside of that circle. Therefore, having a local lack of competence may not equate to a person being globally incompetent in a way that would prevent them from contributing to the project at all. Often, the best editors are not necessarily experts in everything, but rather are adept at recognizing areas where they do and do not have the required expertise, and focusing on those where they may be the most productive. Concentrating on local competence, rather than global incompetence, may help to identify ways in which problematic editors can become productive ones, by focusing on individual strengths rather than individual weaknesses.

The bottom line

There can be a fine line between mischief and incompetence. It doesn't help to spend too much time trying to figure out the reason for the disruption, because many trolls do their trolling by feigning incompetence. It is difficult to distinguish between fake or real incompetence, but disruption is disruption and needs to be prevented. Give editors a few chances, and some good advice, certainly—but if these things don't lead to reasonably competent editing within a reasonable time frame, it's best to wash your hands of the situation. Wikipedia, for better or worse, is just not the best fit for everybody.

This essay...

... is often criticized for being uncivil. The most sensible defense to such criticism is that the primary purpose of this essay is not to present it to competence-lacking editors to let them know they are incompetent. After all, as argued here, they are either incapable of recognizing their own incompetence (see Dunning–Kruger effect) or are incapable of changing their behavior. Rather, the purpose of this essay is to inform discussion amongst other editors of how to deal with issues arising from incompetence. So, if WP:COMPETENCE seems to apply to an editor, it is usually not appropriate to tell them so.

See also

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