Friday, January 26, 2007


"Wikipedia: Conflict of Interest" -- how I understand it

When I read Internet Esquire's post This Wikipedia Article Brought to You by Microsoft, my first reaction was to start writing a guide to explain how to work around the problems of this guideline; the culture of Wikipedia can be confusing to some. But then I remembered the cheery invitation at the top of the opening page of Wikipedia: "Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." Those words do suggest to the general public that anyone is welcome to edit the content, without regard if the article is about you, your business, or something that you make your living from knowing the details about. So I put my notes towards that essay aside to deal with a more important issue: is this invitation only open to some people -- or is it open to everyone?

From my experience, most veteran Wikipedians don't give this sentence much thought; the only people who complain that "anyone" really doesn't mean anyone tend to be the troublemakers, the people who are only interested in stirring up controversy (also called trolls), the kooks, and tendentious editors. The people who can't get their writing published -- who can't even get their websites or blogs read. The people who want to get the last word before the Wikipedia community boots them into the darkness of the ether despite repeated attempts by the community to reach out them to get them to play nice.

So I hope those folks who are worried that their edits might be a conflict of interest understand the mindset of many Wikipedians who encounter one of these situations. It is a problem, and unless you want to abide by Jimbo Wales' advice that one should just edits the Talk pages, it really isn't clear what one should do. So I'm going to offer a simple solution to this. Maybe it'll get me banned from Wikipedia (which would be a major loss to me than anyone might suspect), but considering all of the electrons that have been transmitted on the subject, I honestly don't see any other solution.

If you are an ethical person, and see a mistake or omission in a Wikipedia article that you can correct and you would make the edit whether or not you had a conflict of interest in the article -- go ahead and make the edit.

However, if the item is a controversial one, tread lightly. Do your homework, and provide objective, dissinterested sources to prove that your edit is valid. If there is any other opinion on the matter that a reader can reasonably expect ot find in the article, make sure that your changes are framed to provide one more opinion on the matter -- not the only one.

I write this after realizing that the worse thing that will happen if someone does this in any case is that another Wikipedian will revert the edits. However, this may happen in any situation, regardless of who makes the edit. A comment on a talk page may never be read: look at what happened to Kami Huyse when she followed Jimbo's advice. And someone without ethics is not going to bother
to follow the rules -- like spammers; they will make the edits anyway, then claim that they are being unfairly victimized when someone reverts their edits.

But if your edit is reverted, don't take this as a challenge to an edit war; you'll only get in trouble. Wikipedia has a detailed conflict resolution process, and the strategy through it is to keep asking, "If I didn't have a conflict in interest here, would this edit still have been reverted?" If the answer is "no", then patience, civility, and repeated demonstrations of good intent towards the project will win the day. However, if the answer is clearly a "yes", then cut your losses and move on; you know why the edits aren't being accepted.

If Wikipedia is truly open to anyone -- or at least eveyone who is reasonably civil and demonstrates a minimal amount of common sense -- then this ought to work. I'm willing to bet my Wikipedia reputation that it will, and I'm willing to help anyone who wants to try this; because if, despite my best efforts and our expressed good faith, this doesn't work, maybe I don't want to be part of this project anymore.

All of us serious particpants know that Wikipedia is not perfect; all of these confusing procedures are only meant to help the participants make it better. If the procedures don't actually help, then they need to be changed. You can help improve Wikipedia by showing us where they fail and by politely nudging us to improve them. I say "politely" only because it is a well-known fact that honey attracts more flies than vinegar. If you really want to fight over the matter, try Usenet; the goal of Wikipedia is to create a consensus, where everyone is a victor -- not to declare one person the victor and force everyone else to admit that they are losers.


Hello, Goeff. And thank you for your considered response to my earlier post. I have posted a reply to your response entitled Wikipedia's Bias Against Experts on the XODP Blog.
Goeff; I would also add that you should make sure it is something actually worth debating. Or in other words, pick your battles. Good post though, sorry I am so late to teh game.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours? Site Meter