Why Wikipedia Needs COI Editors

July 2, 2018

Wikipedia exists across 300 languages, of which English is the largest, comprising over 5.5 million articles. Those articles subsist on the efforts of over 33.6 million registered users, as well as numerous anonymous edits. However, only 135,000 of those accounts are active editors, i.e., have edited anything on Wikipedia within the past 30 days.  With a ratio of approximately 250 articles per editor, it’s obvious that maintaining the encyclopedia is a massive workload. That amount of work is intensified by the influx of paid editors, whose contributions require a high level of scrutiny to ensure that it’s appropriate for inclusion on Wikipedia. While it is commonly known as the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, it now comes with a series of qualifications, thanks in large part to problems with paid editing.

 

In 2012, an investigation of accounts suspected of sockpuppeting uncovered a massive network of accounts being used to push content out across Wikipedia.  The investigation revealed that a consulting firm, Wiki-PR, had been using a network of over 250 accounts to publish POV text, citing bad sources to give the impression of credibility. Subsequently, in 2013, these accounts were banned, along with all employees, contractors, and owners of Wiki-PR. The Wikimedia Foundation then updated its terms of use to require anyone who is paid to edit to disclose the nature of their conflict of interest.

 

Paid editors are also expected to follow guidelines and generally refrain from directly editing articles that they are paid to update. Instead, they should seek guidance from other community members and have their work reviewed to ensure that their content itself is unbiased, and otherwise compliant with Wikipedia guidelines. While this effort for transparency is great in theory, in practice, it exacerbates the workload for the already limited number of volunteer editors. Of the 135,000 active editors, there are very few who are familiar with COI guidelines, let alone offer constructive criticism. The editors who are familiar and qualified generally fall into one of three mindsets:

  1. Paid editing, no matter the context, actively undermines the goals of Wikipedia. The introduction of a monetary influence of any kind inevitably leads to situations like the one with Wiki-PR. These users sometimes feel that they are best serving Wikipedia by shutting down any attempts at petitioning new content from paid COI editors.

  2. Paid editing is a corruptive force on Wikipedia. Not engaging with paid editors is a necessary step to prevent other editors from questioning their motives in turn.

  3. Paid editing is like any other kind of editing on Wikipedia: it can be good or bad. Given the potential for disaster as seen with Wiki-PR, holding paid COI editors to a higher standard is a necessity. By engaging with paid COI editors openly and transparently, it mitigates that risk by keeping everything reviewable, rather than driving the behavior underground.

With that in mind, it’s essential for paid editors to put their best foot forward. They must follow the terms of use and be patient when engaging with the Wikipedia community. It’s also important to be willing to push back against clients on content that would violate Wikipedia guidelines, to lighten the workload for volunteer editors and demonstrate good faith. In turn, volunteer editors should also assume good faith (like they should with every other editor) and focus on the content itself, rather than its origins. While it’s difficult to repair the damage to the Wikipedia community’s trust after the Wiki-PR scandal, it has to start somewhere. That point is an understanding that COI content can be well-intentioned, well-sourced, and compliant with Wikipedia’s guidelines.

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