How Wikipedia Works/Chapter 14

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No account of Wikipedia would be complete without discussing conflicts and how they are resolved. That Wikipedia works, considering its open-door policy for editors, is not a minor miracle. Wikipedia has to cope with pettiness and strange behavior, as well as predictable amounts of editing by people with agendas and those bored children whose immediate reaction to a freely editable encyclopedia is to scribble on it. Because of Wikipedia's success in compiling a large, free, open encyclopedia, some might be surprised that the site also experiences various kinds of serious internal strife. Disputes on Wikipedia cannot be wished away ("Can't we all just get along?"). Allowing anyone to edit just about anything has a price.

This chapter will discuss onsite disputes and the procedures for their resolution. Disputes vary from teacup tempests about minor points of formatting or nomenclature to deep-rooted issues about the coverage of controversial current affairs. Without reasonably effective mechanisms for dispute resolution, the Wikipedia model of open editing could never have come as far as it has.

Reading through a realistic description of dispute resolution on Wikipedia is probably somewhat forbidding. Most readers will understandably think that they don't intend to become involved in conflict and acrimony, and this is a good goal to have. If you go far enough into the editing process, however, some disagreements are almost inevitable. Fortunately, Wikipedia has ways to resolve disputes.

Content Disputes and Edit Wars[edit]

A content dispute is any disagreement about the content of a Wikipedia article. An edit war is a content dispute in which two or more editors have decided to try to impose their view on an article by repeatedly changing the article to a version in line with their opinion. This conflict over content is the most common kind and typically takes the form of a revert war, with editors going back and forth about what to include. Other content disputes, such as disputed merges and title issues, also arise, and these are handled by the mechanisms mentioned in Chapter 8, Make and Mend Wikipedia's Web. Edit wars are common in contentious topic areas, which is no coincidence. But they are otherwise rare, as most articles contain nothing to provoke heated arguments, and if you stay away from editing contentious topics, you may never encounter one.

Keeping Calm
Wikipedians tend to become most involved in heated discussions in areas where they're passionate about the subject matter. Wikipedia:Staying cool when the editing gets hot (shortcut WP:COOL) is an essay on the vital topic of subduing emotion and aggression during an edit war. Don't underestimate how difficult this can be.

Wikipedia has no formal process dedicated to resolving disagreements about content. Instead, most edit wars are resolved over time through discussion and finding consensus, discussed next. Wikipedia does not formally ask another person or group to judge which content version is more correct. Here are three major reasons why:

  • Socially speaking, if the editors involved can come to consensus, this is better for everyone.
  • Compromise is more likely to reflect a neutral point of view than choosing the better of two rival versions.
  • Creating a group of so called super-editors who could argue with authority on content matters would undermine the egalitarian spirit of Wikipedia. And even if Wikipedia could find people to fill the role of super-editors, these editors would find it impossible to expertly judge the multitude of content on Wikipedia. This solution would not scale well.

A real advantage of the consensus-based approach, when it works, is that the parties feel better about themselves and the ultimate article content. A well-drafted compromise reflects well on those who contribute to it.

The Three-Revert Rule
The Three-Revert Rule is a policy (WP:3RR) that says, "Wikipedians who revert a page in whole or in part more than three times in 24 hours, except in certain special circumstances, are likely to be blocked from editing." Chapter 5, Basic Editing warned against overusing reverts. If you find yourself arguing about content with other editors, back off and discuss the issue on the talk page, rather than get carried away re-editing. (Note that the Three-Revert Rule does not apply to simple vandalism removal.) To report violations of this rule, go to w:Wikipedia:Administrators's noticeboard/3RR.

Coming to Consensus[edit]

Wikipedia, therefore, operates by consensus. Although the site is dynamic, consensus prevails in most articles, the majority of which are not disputed. A few topics are in rapid flux, but most topic areas are at least temporarily settled because most of the interested editors consider the content good enough. Because of this, a sensible solution to a dispute can sometimes be restoring a disputed article to an older version that had consensus—but that version may be less than ideal, as well. Wikipedia is not static by nature.

As the policy on consensus says (as of April 2008):

  • Consensus is an inherent part of the wiki process. Consensus is typically reached as a natural product of the editing process; generally someone makes a change or addition to a page, and then everyone who reads the page has an opportunity to either leave the page as it is or change it. In essence, silence implies consent if there is adequate exposure to the community. (From Wikipedia:Consensus, shortcut WP:CON)

Thus, consensus is reached by the editors involved with a particular article; the community for any particular article consists of those people who take an active interest in the page. Other uninvolved editors are welcome to become involved at any point. Generally, consensus occurs through everyday editing of an article, with any disputed points or disagreements discussed on the talk page. In dispute resolution, consensus does not mean everyone agrees with the outcome; instead, it means everyone agrees to abide by it.

Good editors on Wikipedia detect problems with existing consensus early on through discussion on an article's talk page (and through noticing controversial edits). Reaching a new consensus on an improved version is a process. Figure 14.1, “Finding consensus in a dispute” shows a flowchart taken from Wikipedia:Consensus. This chart shows an idealized and schematic editing process that may bring about consensus if the editors involved persist and learn the root causes of their disagreements.

Figure 14.1. Finding consensus in a dispute

How you handle yourself as an editor can help in the consensus process. To avoid edit wars and interact tactfully with problematic content, try this self-imposed rule: Only revert a change you disagree with once before discussing it on the talk page. When disputing something, ask yourself, "What is the problem with this actual version?" Address that specific point. You can't always find agreement through rational discussion, but you can narrow the gap by negotiating, as long as you keep the discussion concrete.

Resolving a Dispute: Discussion[edit]

The first step in resolving any disputed edit is to post a note on the article's talk page (or other page under discussion) explaining the problem specifically. Ideally, the editors involved will see that note and respond. If you're responding to a particular editor's actions or you want to make sure he or she sees your comment, leave a quick note on that editor's talk page, alerting him or her to the new discussion; though in general, if you wish to discuss an article's content, you should keep the conversation close to the article itself. As noted in Chapter 5, Basic Editing, if you have made a change that others may find controversial—or any major change, particularly to a contentious topic—explain the change and your reasoning in a quick, polite note on the talk page, and add helpful edit summaries. This sets the tone for the discussion and gives other editors a reasonable place to comment.

How do you have a civil discussion about a contentious topic? Two fundamentals are

  • Remember that Wikimedia is a global project. Discussions are about working out the kinks.
  • Remember that others may have very different perspectives from your own.

Keep in mind the basic guidelines for any talk page discussion, as outlined in "Talk Page Guidelines" on Section 1.5.1, “Talk Page Guidelines”. Maintaining good behavior is crucial, no matter the source of the dispute. There is a huge difference between saying, "I disagree with you and here's why," and "You are obviously a partisan editor and your views will not be tolerated in the article."

Good Sense Should Prevail, So De-escalate

Even though Wikipedia cannot change the real-world situations that drive some disputes, you certainly can change the tone of such a dispute if you're ever involved in one. The basic guideline is to stick very close to the talk page rules. By discussing a dispute calmly and resisting being provoked into personal attacks, you can reduce tensions. You will also be helping your case if matters move into more formal processes, making it easier rather than harder for third-party mediation to be effective.

Obviously, participants who are convinced they are right or are unwilling to work under the basic content policies can cause problems. These types would be better off contributing to one of the many online discussion forums that exist or blogging about their opinions. Wikipedia requires a willingness to work toward consensus, with the goal of achieving a good article that meets the content policies. Fortunately, the self-selection of active editors on the site works toward open mindedness. In line with the overall idea of Assume Good Faith, everyone involved should be pleasant and attentive to the other side of an argument. In this context, arguments aren't the same thing as debates—no one should be trying to win a debating-society-style victory—and trying to score points is not constructive.

Remember as well that the discussion process can take a long time: Editors aren't (ideally) online 24/7. Debates may take weeks or even longer to be settled happily. Editing on Wikipedia isn't a race; for most topics, debates don't need to be settled immediately. Compromise a little and work toward being an eventualist rather than being impatient for issues to be dealt with quickly. Stay out of any debates that aren't central to your editing. We introduced eventualism in Chapter 12, Community and Communication as the wikiphilosophy that in the long term things will work out. Waiting and returning to an issue a month later is not a bad idea: A reasonable talk page approach is "I still think…". The proportion of content issues that should be settled within 24 hours is low.

Once discussion has run its course, two possible extreme outcomes may be reached:

  • The warring parties agree on a compromise version, and the edit war ceases for the time being.
  • An unproductive edit war results as editors change the page back and forth between two incompatible versions, without troubling to engage each other in discussion.

Edit wars may not affect an entire article; often only one section is particularly controversial and subject to edit warring. Editors may compromise about other sections of the article more easily.

When reasoned discussion fails to resolve an edit war, you should think further about its underlying causes and possibly turn to others for mediation or temporary cooling-off measures.

More Steps for Resolving a Content Dispute[edit]

As discussed, the parties in an edit war should talk to each other on the talk page of the article in question or on the user talk pages of those involved in the dispute. If these exchanges of views are carried out in a cooperative and reasonable way, the edit war will probably be resolved.

But if compromise isn't reached, what happens next? Some basic options are:

  • Page protection (short term) by an administrator
  • Mediation (informal) by any Wikipedian
  • Recourse to a formal process, most usually a Request for Comment (see "Resolving Disputes Between Editors" on Section 2.1, “Dispute Resolution Processes”) on editor behavior
WikiLove

WikiLove doesn't say more than this: The letter of the law does not overrule the basic need to treat others as you wish to be treated. You may think this sounds as dated as kaftans and wearing a flower in your hair, but these feel-good beliefs really exist on Wikipedia, even though its huge scale means WikiLove is a philosophical influence, rather than a specific policy. Appeals to WikiLove are usually meant to be an antidote to excessive reliance on policy. As such, WikiLove is the natural counterpart of Be Bold! and Ignore All Rules! This trio of ideas (a quartet, with Assume Good Faith) are the result of time-honored wiki thinking.

Although it sounds rather utopian, the desire for WikiLove is consistent with other approaches: soft security rather than eliminating all bad edits before they happen, trying to appreciate the value in different points of view, tolerance and respect of other editors, and allowing an article to have an unfinished feel.

Page protection stops an edit war in its tracks. The administrator applying the protection should not be editing the article (i.e., he or she should be neutral), and the protected version should be the current one—in effect a random choice (this process is humorously skewered on a Meta page called The Wrong Version). The point of the protection should be to give all parties a time-out from the warring during which negotiations take place.

Of course, administrator intervention may occur earlier in an edit war with the application of 24-hour blocks for editors who violate the Three-Revert Rule. In a broader perspective, leaving an article unedited for 24 hours isn't anything major. Edit warriors, however, are more often than not myopic in their view of Wikipedia, believing that a "wrong" version should not be allowed to stand on Wikipedia—even for a day!

Outside intervention, or mediation by a third party, has a definite place in the process as soon as bilateral discussion breaks down. Effective mediation can often be simple in its approach: A clear explanation of the fundamental policies on content and conduct can alter the atmosphere. When an article is within the scope of a WikiProject, others involved in the project have an excellent chance of successfully mediating the dispute.

For example, arguing editors may need to be reminded that their opinions cannot stand alone: Reliable sources should be cited. Similarly, cutting reliably sourced material is typically not acceptable; where two points of view exist, set them side by side using the style "A says X (reference), but is contradicted by B who says Y (reference)" to convey a neutral point of view. Most incivility can be curbed by pointing to policy: You really shouldn't call other editors names, nor use aggressive language, nor attack their good faith. Since many edit wars are fueled by an editor's attitude, discussing the issue with an outsider can be easier for the parties than making direct concessions.

The first outside intervention may be when an administrator gets involved. Administrators often end up in the middle of a dispute. If you ever come into conflict with an administrator, remember that Assume Good Faith works both ways. From WP:ADMIN:

If a user thinks an administrator has acted improperly against them or another editor, they should express their concerns directly to the administrator responsible and try to come to a resolution in an orderly and civil manner. However, if the matter is not resolved between the two parties, users can take further action according to Wikipedia:Resolving disputes.

Handling an Unwanted or Unexpected Dispute

Informal mediation is the ideal solution to edit wars: It is humane, largely face-saving, and provides good documentation detailing how compromise is reached. If informal mediation fails or doesn't take place, the conflict will probably lead to more formal dispute resolution. Therefore, if you fall into some dispute without intending to be in conflict with anyone, keep these two basic things in mind:

  • Stay calm. A polite approach is not weakness and is likely to help you.
  • Find someone else to involve (an administrator you have encountered, someone editing in the same area or from its WikiProject, or any experienced Wikipedian).

For more on how to use third parties to defuse difficult situations, see Wikipedia:Third opinion (shortcut WP:THIRD). Although this page is not part of official policy or process, you can list a problem here and seek help with it.

Ineffective Solutions[edit]

Certain solutions to edit wars are against basic policies and so will not be applied. This doesn't prevent them from being proposed, usually by outsiders.

Permanent page protection

The theory is that the messy business and raw edits that go live in a disputed Wikipedia article should be kept under wraps. Some theories on stable versions of articles amount to the same thing. This solution goes against the general idea that articles should always be open to improvement.

Leave it to the experts

This is a fairly straight recourse to appeal to authority and, as such, is unacceptable on Wikipedia for reasons explained in Chapter 2, The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia. Of course, experts in a field editing under their own names deserve every respect. But content is not going to be accepted simply because an expert vouches for it, and nonexperts are not going to be excluded from the discussion.

POV fork

A POV fork is an offshoot of a wiki page that is no longer constrained to conform to a neutral point of view. It may adopt a sympathetic point of view or critical point of view. The creation of a POV fork page is typically suggested in a debate over content on a page with too much negative, critical commentary on the topic. See Wikipedia:Content forking (shortcut WP:CFORK) for why POV forks aren't allowed on Wikipedia.

Wikinfo

Wikinfo is a wiki site set up by Fred Bauder in July 2003. Fred is a Wikipedian who is still active on the English-language Wikipedia. The idea behind Wikinfo is to encourage the writing of articles that are or resemble POV forks. In other words, Wikinfo is something like Wikipedia, but without the central NPOV policy. It also permits original research, another major difference from Wikipedia. Wikinfo contains over 40,000 articles.

Causes of Content Disputes[edit]

Disputes caused by poor wording or misunderstandings can usually be cleared up quickly. For more complicated disputes, you should consider various possible underlying causes for the disagreement. These can potentially undermine the dispute resolution model based on everyone being pleasant and fair-minded.

Disputes over factual content, style, and sourcing may stem from the following things.

Factual correction and absent sources

Someone is trying to correct a fact, or at least change it, when the most accessible reference works and/or media coverage do not support the change. "But I know" is not an acceptable reason, and disputes can arise because of this.

Conflict of interest

Someone wants to change an article because it has a direct impact on his or her person, company, or something else of special interest. This causes trouble with non-neutral editing. Such an issue is likely to persist as long as editors are unwilling to follow Neutral Point of View strictly.

Prominence

Although the Neutral Point of View policy cautions against giving undue weight to material in articles (such as minor scandals in the life of a public figure), the policy does not specify exactly how much prominence should be given. Sometimes edit wars are about the content of an article's lead section; if a politician is charged with fraud, does that overshadow his or her other accomplishments?

Unreliable sources

Disputes over particular sources are not uncommon, especially for controversial topics. For instance, in some cases newspapers can be claimed as reliable sources, but they are not infallible. They contain editorial as well as straight reporting; and particular reporters may be known for partisan views. All this means that some editors will not accept major parts of newspapers and other media as sources. This is usually incorrect: If The New York Times has portrayed a story incorrectly, and you are sure of this, you should be able to also use your better source. Set source A and source B side by side, and let the reader judge; articles are improved when alternate views are included. Those who disagree with you would have to see whether the Times was the only source or whether other sources back up the original claim. Not relying too much on one source is especially important when citing rumors, blogs, and other marginal sources. Accusations of media bias tend to be unhelpful and to exacerbate content disputes.

Disputes can also occur based on the editing style in an article:

Alleged groupthink

A compromise, once reached, should not exclude a newcomer from reopening a discussion: That would be groupthink (explained in "Consensus vs. Groupthink" on Section 1.6, “Case Study: Gdańsk”). The question is, how often should the newcomer change an article against the existing consensus? Repeatedly making such changes is a kind of edit warring, even if accompanied with the correct observation that consensus can always be challenged on Wikipedia.

Low-intensity warring

Articles that an editor dislikes are often subject to extended campaigns of relatively minor edits, which over time degrade the content.

Single-purpose accounts

When an editor creates an account and then only edits one article (or a small group of related articles), he or she may be some kind of activist with a narrow focus, rather than an encyclopedist who views the Wikipedia project in the larger sense. Such editors may be stubborn. See Wikipedia:Single-purpose account (shortcut WP:SPA), which has no official status but indicates some considerations important in dispute resolution, where the limited range of edits from such an account usually counts against an editor.

Consensus vs. Groupthink

Groupthink is a social psychology term that means an outcome that claims consensus, but only by sidelining minority views and ignoring drawbacks. The primary meaning of this term concerns bad decisions and how they are made. See Groupthink for general background. The term groupthink is used quite often in Internet forum discussions, as the pejorative form of consensus. From the perspective of Wikipedia's content policies, consensus versus groupthink looks like this: Neutral Point of View must not exclude minority significant views that are supported by good sources. On the other hand, articles can exclude any views that are Original Research (ideas that people develop themselves), that fail Verifiability (don't check out against any mainstream literature), or are otherwise on the fringe. Consensus regarding content should, therefore, be based on broadminded, fair discussion that is also critical about contribution quality. It is not "groupthink" to say that views held by only a few people don't deserve prominent coverage in an article.

Sockpuppetry

Sockpuppets are secondary accounts, and using them manipulatively to edit causes problems. Sockpuppetry—the suspicion that an account is being used to further an edit war, evade blocks, create a false impression of consensus, or other abusive tricks—completely undermines assumptions of good faith. Meatpuppets can have the same effect: Getting your brother to edit from another account is meatpuppetry of an obvious kind if he just does what you say.

Finally, some topics are inherently more prone to controversy than others:

Fandom

Pop culture topics can cause problems, as it can be difficult to find reputable source material to substantiate claims. For example, which comic books belong in the Batman canon (if such a thing exists) can never really be determined. And sectarian strife in the heavy metal world has fired up many fans who might otherwise have never contributed to Wikipedia. While some of these matters could be handled by insisting on a neutral point of view, it can be difficult to get fans who are passionate about their point of view to agree.

Imported Internet quarrels

Occasionally, disputes that originated elsewhere will spill into Wikipedia. For instance, in late 2006, an arbitration case opened on Wikipedia concerning Derek Smart, the article about the game author known for Battlecruiser 3000AD and other videogames. [30] An intractable controversy that was already long established in other Internet forums about Smart's games migrated to Wikipedia. In these circumstances, influencing the editors involved is almost impossible as they will have mostly made up their mind on the issue and will treat others who disagree in an adversarial fashion.

Controversial topics in the real world

Some conflicts on Wikipedia reflect military, political, religious, ethnic, and nationalist conflicts in our world. This situation has a certain inevitability about it. Wikipedia's policies, particularly No Original Research (WP:NOR), mean that Wikipedia articles should only create a record of the conflicts, not pass judgment on them in any way. Partisans may well want to take control of Wikipedia's articles. But the fundamental exclusions of non-neutral editing and original research, like the drawing of historical conclusions ahead of the historians, should block their ambitions. Because the world has no shortage of those who would like to use Wikipedia as a propaganda place, Wikipedia can only do a limited amount by identifying and banning problem editors in these areas. Real-world conflicts can be very contentious; edit any topic that you know to be generally controversial carefully.

Case Study: Gdańsk[edit]

What happens when a dispute rooted in real-world issues occurs on a global project that strives to be neutral and fair toward all points of view without cultural bias? Even disputes with a small locus can have wide implications. A particularly salient example is one that arose during the early days of the site concerning nomenclature for the Polish city of Gdańsk, formerly known as Danzig. To explain the issue, Danzig is an exonym (placename in another language, in this case German) and is the historically accurate name for the city during certain periods.

The normal Wikipedia approach to historical writing about places whose names have changed is to use the "P in Q (now R in S)" style. For example, writing "New Amsterdam in New Netherland (now New York City, USA)" is helpful to the general reader and appropriate for an article dealing with the first half of the 17th century when the future city of New York was a Dutch settlement. This is an example of an English exonym: Nieuw Amsterdam and Nieuw-Nederland were the Dutch names.

Eastern Europe experienced numerous boundary and language changes during the 20th century. Real-world tensions arising from nationalist and ethnic feeling cannot be discounted in Wikipedia. On the other hand, the project's aim is to compile a useful reference work. Therefore, editors should use historical exonyms to aid reader comprehension wherever possible. The common usage in standard textbooks and scholarly works is at least relevant.

Another example is that of Burma, which renamed itself Myanmar in 1989; the Wikipedia article was under the title Myanmar and searches for Burma redirected to the Myanmar article. This reflected the usage in many typical English-language news organizations, but in late 2007 a different view prevailed on the site after greater media coverage, and now Burma is used. For Côte d'Ivoire, the official name as of 1985, you'll find greater uncertainty since news organizations sometimes use Ivory Coast, the older English name that has not diedut. At one point this caused a dispute. In this case Wikipedia's basic policy of using the most common English name is tempered by the wish to be reasonably correct, though not pedantic (République de Côte d'Ivoire would be more correct, but encyclopedias don't need to use this full title). In the case of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, the name changed officially in 1995 and has been adopted on Wikipedia. In reporting on current affairs, therefore, the trend in English has been to drop exonyms, but not always. The general acceptance of present-day changes, however, doesn't address the proper conventions for historical exonyms.

In the case of Gdańsk/Danzig, the particular problem of referring to places now in Poland, but which were in Germany before 1945, dogged the English-language Wikipedia almost from the outset. Danzig had a particular and unusual status as a free city between 1918 and 1939. Given its complex history before that, rival proposals arose for a naming convention. Over a period of years, a dispute over the article title festered, and no consensus was reached. As is usual in such situations, editors tended to try to establish "facts on the ground" rather than to engage in patient discussions. The dispute was long-running and contentious, as you can see in the 11 pages of talk page archives for the article, most of which deal with the naming controversy.

Unusually, the dispute over Gdańsk/Danzig was put to a general vote, with multiple questions. This was used as a clarifying measure and a way to end the intractable dispute by sorting out the many potential options and gathering consensus in the community and among interested editors. The vote closed in March 2005 and produced a complicated solution. From Talk:Gdańsk/Vote:

  • For Gdańsk, use the name Danzig between 1308 and 1945.
  • For Gdańsk, use the name Gdańsk before 1308 and after 1945.
  • In biographies of clearly German persons, the name should be used in the form Danzig (Gdańsk) and later Danzig exclusively.
  • In biographies of clearly Polish persons, the name should be used in the form Gdańsk (Danzig) and later Gdańsk exclusively.
  • For Gdańsk and other locations that share a history between Germany and Poland, the first reference of one name in an article should also include a reference to other names, e.g., Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) or Gdańsk (Danzig). An English language reference that primarily uses this name should be provided on the talk page if a dispute arises.

The voting produced clear results, except for the period from 1466 to 1793: The majority voting for Danzig was not very substantial, so you can't say a consensus was reached.

Votes do not serve to create consensus: A vote may, however, happily confirm that a minority objection is only narrowly supported. A vote also cannot close down an issue entirely, since latecomers may rightly feel they had no chance to express a view. This particular instance of polling to deal with a complex issue about which feelings are strong and which connect to wider themes was considered a success for this unusual technique, which worked to resolve an unusually contentious dispute—at the time, a Signpost article referred to the Gdańsk dispute as "arguably the largest and longest-running article content dispute on Wikipedia." [31] Most disputes do not use explicit votes, however, relying more on editors judging the strength and quality of the particular arguments being made.

Further Reading

[30] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_arbitration/Derek_Smart.

[31] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2005-03-07/Gdansk_or_Danzig.

Resolving Disputes Between Editors[edit]

In the worst disputes, Wikipedia employs formal dispute resolution. These formal processes reverse normal discussion conventions: Instead of discussing the article content, formal processes provide pages to discuss the behavior of the editors involved in a dispute to try to resolve problems. In other words, the content is not judged, but editor behavior is scrutinized closely. This is a last resort. Disputes between editors should be resolved without formal processes whenever possible since informal, civil discussions offer the best results—on Wikipedia, try to stay out of court.

Despite this good advice implicit in the Wikipedia ethos from the start, some disputes are hard to resolve or can escalate over time. Wikipedia has a progression of processes, ending in arbitration. Currently about 100 cases go to arbitration each year; these cases can be tracked at the Wikipedia Signpost (shortcut WP:POST), which gives a weekly summary of each case. 2.1. Dispute Resolution Processes

The vast majority of disputes are resolved through regular discussion and consensus building. Occasionally, a third party, such as an administrator, may step in to try and mediate a public dispute. If this process does not resolve the dispute, you can try one of the following remedies.

Request for Comment

The Request for Comment (RfC) process creates a page on which the community at large can contribute views regarding a specific complaint, which may be about editor conduct, articles, content types, or policies. For an RfC on an editor's conduct, the idea is that general grumbling about an editor can be focused and clarified. The RfC is mostly evidence-led: Discussion should center on specific versions that illustrate the alleged problem. The RfC process allows the issue to be discussed and results in no judicial conclusion. After the RfC, everyone, including the editor about whom a complaint is being made, should understand the reason for the difficulty, which can then hopefully be resolved.

Mediation

Mediation is a somewhat different approach, though it also clarifies the cause of a dispute. Involved parties have to consent to the mediation process. In mediation, experienced Wikipedians try to delineate the issue more closely and through formal discussion with the involved parties (on a dedicated subpage of the mediation project page) reach some compromise that has a chance of working in practice.

Arbitration

Arbitration is a last resort. Here, an elected, formal body of editors will look at both sides of a dispute, sometimes imposing remedies (sanctions) on an editor about whom a complaint is being made or the editor bringing a complaint. Settling your differences with another editor before a case is brought to arbitration is best. Most cases accepted for arbitration have already been through the RfC or mediation processes. Arbitration rulings are binding and enforced by administrative actions if needed.

Sleep On It

From Geni's rules for resolving disputes, at User:Geni/Disputes:

My experience suggests that sleep is the most effective form of dispute resolution. It is far better to deal with the issue in the morning rather than continue late into the night.

The same point is made, along many others in a similar vein, in the essay Wikipedia:No angry mastodons (shortcut WP:MASTODONS).

The Nature of Formal Evidence[edit]

The approach in all of the formal dispute-resolution processes listed above relies on other editors reviewing evidence: What actually happened? Most evidence, in turn, is based on the diff—individual edits and the differences between versions of a page. Since all edits are kept and traceable to their authors (even edits to deleted articles are visible to administrators), the site is extremely transparent when it comes to tracking editor behavior even months later, creating a great incentive to follow Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, even when involved in a controversial dispute—especially when involved in a controversial dispute!

Often an editor will say or imply, "That editor is behaving badly and those edits make Wikipedia look bad, so I'm going to behave badly too." This attitude is wrong, dead wrong. Excess reverts are just one common aspect of editor behavior discussed in content disputes. All individuals are expected to behave civilly and are judged on their own edits. Any time you behave badly, the diffs may be used against you later.

Policies like the requirement to interact civilly (WP:CIVIL) are most important during quarrels: Use civil language and be level-headed and reasonable when discussing disagreements. Editors using a bull-headed approach, who may make allegations of bad faith and accuse their opponents of conspiracy, are seen as self-righteous and aggressive and often end up violating basic policies. Passionate views that don't respect those who might think otherwise lead to editors betraying the norms of the Wikipedia community.

Arbitration Committee[edit]

The worst onsite disputes may end with the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom), an elected body of up to 15 editors who review cases of editor disputes in a formal process. The arbitration decision on a case is nearly the final step in dispute resolution on the English-language Wikipedia. Cases are presented by the editors involved or by other interested parties; the Arbitration Committee reviews them and chooses whether to accept the case. Article content is not judged in arbitration cases, only editor behavior.

The decisions are intended to serve Wikipedia's mission. The ArbCom is the highest court on Wikipedia and, in fact, close to being the only real court because the lower levels of formal dispute resolution are still ways to gather community opinion, not strictly to evaluate evidence. The English-language Wikipedia ArbCom only deals with issues on the English-language Wikipedia; problems on any other project must be resolved on that project.

An arbitration decision relies on evidence presented, takes several weeks to prepare, and consists of three parts. These decisions may be appealed to Jimmy Wales, but few appeals are successful. The three parts of the decision are Principles, Findings of Fact, and Remedies.

The Principles are of potential interest to anyone closely involved in the management of Wikipedia. They are good indications on how existing policy may be implemented because they select ideas by considering policies broadly (the whole stock of policies and guidelines along with other writings) to explain how a decision is made and how the decision fits into a larger picture of editor conduct, good and bad. The principles are not policy or legislation since the community as a whole decides on policy using the guidelines explained in Chapter 13, Policy and Your Input, and they are not binding precedents for future decisions because Wikipedia itself changes.

The Findings of Fact, in comparison, are largely a transparent set of judgments based on how editors behaved on the site backed up by the different versions. These findings generally do not take into account editor conduct elsewhere (in other Internet forums, for instance); editors who can reliably be identified in other contexts, however, will be cited if they, for example, blog about Wikipedia or invite others to edit.

The Remedies are the effective judicial outcome of the case. They consist of the application of a now-standard collection of sanctions; Figure 14.2, “The Remedies section from the Derek Smart arbitration case” shows the remedies section from the "Derek Smart" arbitration case. Remedies range from bans from the site for periods of up to one year; topic bans, disallowing the editing of all articles in some definite area; various kinds of paroles for civility and reverting; and the loss of privileges (notably administrative powers). Administrators enforce the Remedies.

Arbitration decisions may, in complex cases, run to as many as 50 points (in other words, the total number of Principles, Findings, and Remedies), each of them voted on separately by the Arbitration Committee. The decisions are pragmatic rather than punitive and, despite all the judicial trappings, do not treat Wikipedia policy as a strictly defined body of law.

Anyone may bring an arbitration case; though, as previously mentioned, most cases must go through other dispute resolution processes before being accepted. Anyone may also comment on arbitration cases in progress. Find out more at Wikipedia:Arbitration.

The site is policed by administrators and ordinary editors, and the Arbitration Committee considers only cases brought to it; more cases are rejected than accepted. Fortunately, most editors don't need to pay close attention to arbitration proceedings. Arbitration rules only directly impact highly intractable disputes, and those are usually within small topic areas.

Figure 14.2. The Remedies section from the Derek Smart arbitration case

Arbitration cases do provide a more complete view of the seamy side of the English-language Wikipedia than you can find anywhere else. The Arbitration Committee gradually removes the most problematic editors from the site or endorses bans made by administrators. Arbitration reporting is transparent, and you can find links to the diffs showing who did what. This information is not only public to editors but also to the whole online world (including Wikipedia's critics and media folk interested in Wikipedia stories, two groups that overlap significantly).

Further Reading

Blocks and Bans[edit]

Blocking of user accounts, IP numbers, and IP ranges may be carried out by any administrator. A block simply means that an account or IP number cannot edit the site except for its own user talk page. Because a block has no effect on reading Wikipedia's article and project pages, it represents a temporary administrative suspension of the right to participate in the project. Blocks are most often used to stop ongoing vandalism and to provide a "cooling-off" period for editors who are behaving badly.

This matter should not be treated lightly, though. The Blocking policy is a formal policy document. All blocks are logged, and the blocking administrator must give a reason for the block. Any administrator blocking a user is accountable for the block and should be responsive to queries about it. Administrator discretion, for example, in policing various conduct paroles imposed by the Arbitration Committee (such as an injunction to not edit certain topics), is quite broad, and administrators are constantly making judgment calls in blocking matters. Therefore blocked users may lodge appeals against blocks.

Short blocks indicate that an editor is transgressing site policy. A first offense is normally—at most—a 24-hour block. For the first instance, a block will not be total, so the editor can still edit his or her user talk page (even if editing from an IP number). The editor can also email people through his or her user page. If you receive a short block, use these privileges to communicate wisely. Blocks are not generally given without warning; several standardized series of user talk page templates exist (at Wikipedia:Template message/User talk namespace) to warn against inappropriate behavior. These are supposed to be placed before a block is issued by those monitoring vandalism.

The reason for a block is entered into the block log by the administrator issuing the block, when setting the block period. Block logs accumulate information over time. To inspect block logs, either for accounts or for IP numbers, go to Special:Log/block and fill in the form with the account name you are interested in. You can check for IP numbers whether or not you are editing from that IP yourself. For example, most vandalism on Wikipedia arises from the use of shared school computers. School IT staff can use the logs to monitor problem editing from their machines and find out who to contact on Wikipedia in case editing is blocked.

How to (Oops) Block a Whole Country from Wikipedia

The entire Gulf state of Qatar was blocked briefly in early 2007. This only happened because Qatar connects to the Web through a single IP address. (See a story from USA Today about the blocking of Qatar at http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2007-01-04-wikipedia-qatar_x.htm.)

Short Blocks[edit]

Remember that while Wikipedia maintains an open-door policy, that door gets closed to troublesome contributors. Editing rights are a privilege, not an entitlement. Blocked editors can still read the site while a time out has been imposed on their editing. They can, for example, research in depth for future additions to an article of interest. Perhaps that's expecting too much, but if you're blocked for a day or so, you can make a favorable impression by returning to work with something to offer the project.

Here's a list of what you might do with your time away from the site:

  • Take a long walk outside.
  • Spend time with your family or friends.
  • Find a new article to improve.
  • Send polite emails or apologies to the administrator or editors involved with your dispute.
  • Go to your local library and find better sources to substantiate your claims.

The need for patience and perspective should not have to be pointed out, but often people simply can't accept a short break from editing. When blocked for a short period, don't do these things:

  • Personalize the issue by vowing that the blocking administrator will pay for it.
  • Send rude emails.
  • Obsess about a particular article and how you'll impose your view on it.
  • Decide that the first thing you'll do when getting back on the site is exactly what got you blocked.
  • Create a sockpuppet account or otherwise get around the block to start editing.

Longer Blocks[edit]

Longer blocks and permanent bans are not Wikipedia's first line of defense but may be imposed due to destructive or disruptive behavior. A month-long block might be applied in the case of a returning vandal, for example, an account or IP number with an accumulated history of malicious edits. Blocks are not punitive (a misconception) but implemented to protect the project.

For blocks longer than a few days, the blocked editor may want to request a review. The procedure is explained at w:Wikipedia:Appealing a block (shortcut WP:APB). A blocked editor initiates the review by placing the template {{unblock|give reason here}} at the bottom of his or her user talk page. This will trigger a review by a different administrator.

Ahead of an appeal, the blocked editor should think through his or her position. The difference between edit warring as disruptive behavior and as an attempt to straighten out what an article says may depend on who is considering the issue. The blocked editor should try to separate out policy matters, for example, on reverting and civility, from content matters.

In some cases Wikipedia:Autoblock is relevant. This mechanism for blocking IP ranges can affect an account even after it is unblocked according to the block log.

Bans[edit]

Bans are more serious than blocks because they signify that a formal decision has been made to exclude an editor from the site. A ban may be for period of time, or it may be indefinite. Wikipedia has two kinds of bans.

A ban handed down by the Arbitration Committee is for a time period of at most one year. A community ban means an indefinite block has been imposed such that no other administrator is willing to lift it based on the facts of the case. Community bans are typically blocks that occur after a series of other blocks have been made that have not been successfully appealed by the editor in question.

An ultimate appeal against either kind of ban may be made to the Arbitration Committee. Making an immediate appeal to the ArbCom is not usually worthwhile, however; the banned editor and the blocking administrator should discuss the ban first to clarify the issue. The Arbitration Committee judges cases by considering the facts in addition to the editor's previous contributions to the site. An editor with few meaningful contributions to articles is unlikely to be successful in appealing a community ban.

If a block is imposed to enforce a ban after an arbitration ruling, trying to get the blocking administrator to lift it is pointless. The ban can in this case be reviewed by the Arbitration Committee.

Further Reading

Summary[edit]

This chapter should make it clear that most disputes are settled in informal ways. That's how it should be. Good editors are only on the site because they think Wikipedia's project is important and worthwhile. Disputes should not take up too much time, and proportion and perspective are needed to keep them from doing so. The few formal dispute resolution mechanisms should be entered into with good faith and reserved for only the most intractable arguments. If you have a quarrel with another editor, take a resourceful approach to sorting out your mutual difficulties—this will probably pay off in terms of time saved.

Conclusion to Part III[edit]

You are encouraged to be bold as a contributor and to become an involved and communicative Wikipedian. To do this, you will eventually need to understand site policies as well as site culture.

Wikipedia should not be judged by its most difficult content quarrels; these affect only a tiny proportion of articles. Most difficulties are solved through good sense and good will.

WP is a standard abbreviation for Wikipedia, but it also can stand for Work in Progress, We're the People, Wide Perspective, or Worldwide Project. We're writing this book with the simple hope that as an informed editor, you can move Wikipedia forward more effectively.