|This page in a nutshell: Wikipedia's rules are principles, not civil code or exacting law.|
Our policies reflect certain principles; understanding these principles is more important than understanding the rules
The rules are principles, not laws, on Wikipedia. Policies and guidelines exist only as rough approximations of their underlying principles. They are not intended to provide an exact or complete definition of the principles in all circumstances. They must be understood in context, using some common sense and discretion.
The rules are guidance on those principles. They help editors understand those ideals in a concrete fashion. We should neither restrict our discretion, nor disregard policies and guidelines. Finding an appropriate balance is not always an easy task, and should be done in the context of the principles supporting them and the improvement of the encyclopedia.
Purpose of the principles
The principles, and accompanying rules, on Wikipedia are solely intended towards creating and distributing a free, quality encyclopedia to everyone. The requirements of verifiability, reliable sourcing and other content rules seem the "most obvious" to many contributors. However, all the principles are equally central to this goal. The principle underlying the behavioral rules allows us to work towards a healthy collaborative environment for contributors. The principle underlying our non-free content criteria is intended to ensure we protect the mission of a free encyclopedia. The rules exist to support Wikipedia's mission and should be interpreted in that context.
Jimbo Wales once spoke these wise words:
||Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language. Asking whether the community comes before or after this goal is really asking the wrong question: the entire purpose of the community is precisely this goal. (Jimbo Wales) Wikipedia-l mailing list (8 March 2005).
Context is everything
Each individual case will have its own context. While the rules are useful for the most common circumstances, often there is no hard and fast rule that can be applied. For example, whether a small press publication can be considered a reliable source depends on a number of factors. Does the publishing house have a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy? Is the author a notable or respected expert in relation to the subject of the work? There are many other factors that could be considered. We cannot absolutely determine whether such small publishers (as a single group) are reliable or unreliable, so it is unlikely that the rules will specifically address such a group. Context and editorial discretion are essential in such judgments.
All the rules must be taken in context. Each of them provides context to the others. For example, examine the core content rules. Verifiability, neutral point of view, no original research, reliable sources and citing sources should be considered as a whole. Each of them provides context and reinforcement to the others. Original research can be avoided by citing claims to reliable sources that can be verified by other editors, for example. Editors must also consider the rules in the broader context of the wiki editorial process and the goal of improving Wikipedia.
We are encouraged to use some common sense and discretion. It is impossible to make hard rules that cover every context. We must use some rational thought and judgment in our decisions, rather than slavishly following the wording of policy without thought. Why isn't "use common sense" an official policy? It doesn't need to be; as a fundamental principle, it is above any policy.
Ignore all rules
Rules cannot cover every possible circumstance and sometimes may impede us from improving the encyclopedia. In those cases, we should be bold and do what is best. In the same spirit, the letter of policy will always fall short of completely encompassing the spirit of policy. We should feel free to do whatever is most faithful to the spirit of the policy, whether or not the specific circumstance is spelled out in the policy. Nobody owns articles, so if you see a problem you can fix, do so.
Consensus is a fundamental part of the wiki process. The principles explained in the various policies and guidelines are generally backed by a very broad consensus. While the wording of the various rules may come under dispute, or change in the course of the normal wiki process, the basic principles underlying those policies are rarely disputed. How those principles apply to individual cases is best determined by forming a consensus among the involved editors – registered or unregistered. The BOLD, revert, discuss cycle is a popular method of reaching consensus, and may be useful for identifying objections, keeping discussion moving forward and helping to break deadlocks. Some editors will see any reversion as a challenge, so be considerate and patient. While discussing matters, it is very important that you conduct yourself with civility and assume good faith on the part of others. Edit warring (repeatedly overriding or reimplementing contributions) is highly discouraged. In cases where a consensus is not forthcoming, it may be helpful to seek some assistance in reaching an agreement.
A cordial atmosphere is essential to consensus-building. Editors should be respectful and kind in order to foster a calm collaborative environment. Many negative behaviors are not explicitly covered by the rules, but are frowned upon and essentially discouraged by the rules. Baiting and rude comments may not reach the "threshold" of personal attacks, but they are just as harmful and disruptive. The principles of disallowing personal attacks and preventing disruption similarly discourage comments made with the same negative intent and impact.
Sometimes editors will erroneously place a strong focus on the exact wording of policy. This is commonly referred to as "WikiLawyering". Contributors should assume good faith and explain to someone making legalistic arguments of policy that the spirit of the rules is what is most important. Very often, new editors are used to environments and online activities where the rules are very exacting. Experienced editors should take the time to explain the principles at the core of the rules to help new editors learn and adjust.
Sometimes editors may attempt to manipulate situations by relying on a very strict reading of the wording of a policy. A common example is an editor making exactly three reverts and waiting for another day before making three reverts again. This is an attempt to "game" the three revert rule. However, the rule itself notes that the 3RR limit is an "electric fence". That is, it is a hard limit rather than an entitlement, and revert warring may be considered disruption regardless whether that limit has been reached. For example, breaking the 3RR limit over a 25- or even 36-hour period instead of the "standard" 24 may still be judged an infraction. The principle behind 3RR is avoiding disruptive edit warring, and that is more important than an exact count of reversions.