Conflict of interest editing (COI) has been a highly controversial issue on the English Wikipedia for a long time; it has been thrust into the limelight in the past few months when the high-profile case of WikiPR (BBC report) reached the public eye. The case resulted in the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) issuing a cease–and–desist notice to WikiPR for the first time in the history of the on-line encyclopaedia.
Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a “black hat” practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.
The issue was so visible in both the Wikimedia universe, and the public eye, that it prompted a response from Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia, who coined a Bright Line Rule which says:
Do not edit Wikipedia articles directly if you are a paid advocate. Instead, contribute proposed edits to the talk page, and escalate to appropriate venues on Wikipedia if you are having trouble getting people’s attention.
— Jimmy Wales, Paid Advocacy FAQ
It has come to the attention of this author that even in the heart of the Wikimedia Foundation, started by Wales in 2003, the issue doesn’t appear to be universally accepted as problematic.
None other than Wikipedia insider and the Foundation’s own Program Evaluation & Design Community Coordinator, Sarah Stierch, has been discovered to be violating the core principles re-inforced by Sue Gardner, and Jimmy Wales’ Bright Line Rule.
Part of Sarah’s role
at the Foundation is as a Wikipedian–in–Residence in 2011 was to educate GLAM institutions on issues relating to sourcing, original research, notability & conflict of interest. This presentation by Sarah includes a slide which states:
Where advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of Wikipedia, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.
It defies belief that Sarah would be oblivious to these issues, and how they are perceived by the wider community. However, this screenshot shows that Sarah has been advertising her services on her profile on oDesk.com, a popular freelance marketplace, since September 2013, charging clients the respectable rate of US$44.44 per hour. The picture shows that in December 2013, she was paid US$300 for services rendered for a “Wikipedia Page for Individual.”
With the possibility of Sarah having used a different account or having edited as an anonymous contributor, it can only be guessed for which article she was compensated. A short investigation reveals that from the articles created by User:SarahStierch in December 2013, the following are most likely to have been a work–for–hire: Barry Posner (academic), Miriam Mörsel Nathan and Sally Hogshead, although—as a matter of course—none of them indicate the existence of a conflict of interest.
Given that Sarah has nominated the Sally Hogshead article for placement on the front page of the English Wikipedia on its coveted Did You Know column, it is entirely likely that it is our US$300 article.
In the aftermath of the WikiPR scandal, and following on from other COI cases, critics of Wikipedia have asserted that Jimmy has been haphazard in the interpretation and application of his Bright Line Rule. His and Sue Gardner’s reactions to this latest of Wikipedia embarrassments remain to be seen…
- ^ Tilman Bayer (User:HaeB) pointed out that the statement claiming Sarah was employed by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2011 was incorrect. I have fixed this ommission following his suggestion.
- ^ On a second look, it appears that the culprit might have been the article on Barry Posner. One more mystery to solve in this shady enterprise…