Not for sale: Administrative services

In Part 1 of this blog series on Wikipedia ethics, I explored the general principles that guide our work, and how we advise our clients in Wikipedia engagement; and I gave a bunch of links to our past writings, and various relevant web pages. Today, I’ll explore how I handle my responsibilities as a Wikipedia administrator, as relates to my paid work with Wiki Strategies.

A core Wiki Strategies principle, explored in past writings, applies: any influence I may have over Wikipedia content is not for sale. Even as a “regular” Wikipedia contributor, when a client is paying for article composition and publishing, I do not make edits to Wikipedia on their behalf, or advocate for changes on their behalf (either on Wikipedia, or through other communication channels). (On very rare occasions, I might fix a typo on a client’s article, or format a reference; this may arise, for instance, when I’m demonstrating how to do something and inadvertently click the “save” button. Since such edits are clear, uncontroversial improvements, I do not have any ethical concerns about them; but I do strive to keep them to a minimum, in order to maintain a healthy distance from any direct editing that would be ethically suspect. You might want to look at our Statement of Ethics for more about the cases where I take action on Wikipedia in connection with paid work.)

Beyond my status as a Wikipedia contributor and editor — a status anyone can attain by simply making improvements to the site — I am also an elected administrator on English Wikipedia. The community of volunteer editors entrusted me with some extra tools and abilities, and I need to honor that trust. It is especially vital that I don’t do special favors for my clients with my administrator hat on.

But this can be tricky; one of the main reasons the Wikipedia community entrusted me with these tools is precisely so that I can help people. So how do I walk that line? How do I help people as I’m expected to do — including everyday people who want to navigate Wikipedia’s complexities, including my students, including my clients — without giving my paying clients an unfair advantage? In this post I’ll share some of my specific thinking on this topic. In a future post, I’ll reflect on the broader context.

First — what does an admin do? As an admin, I have the ability to do things like:

  • Block a user’s account, or an IP address, from editing (or rescind a block)
  • Protect an article so that most people can’t edit it (or unprotect)
  • Delete articles (or undelete)
  • Grant (or rescind) special user rights like “course instructor,” “file mover,” “rollback,” or “confirmed”
  • View articles, or versions of articles, that have been deleted

(For more, see this Wikipedia page)

Remember, I don’t typically take action on Wikipedia on a client’s behalf; so the first four rarely intersect with my paid work. There are a very few casesĀ  where I might take administrative action in connection with paid work. One is granting access to special user rights; I might grant these to a colleague or a student in connection with a paying contract, but not directly to a paying client. I also might undelete an article on behalf of a student, but only in a case where I am actively working with them to help them bring it into compliance with Wikipedia’s standards, and/or actively engaging with the administrator who deleted it to reach an agreement about its fate. Above all, any time I act as an administrator in connection with paid work, I am highly transparent about it.

However, I would absolutely never block or unblock a client’s Wikipedia account or IP address, or undelete an article directly on behalf of a client. If such a request were to come up — and it has, in a few cases — I would simply guide my client through making a generic request through ordinary channels. And I would not reach out to another administrator privately to request speedy attention or a favorable outcome. These are all things that would be tempting, because they might really streamline a client engagement; but the conflict of interest involved would be too great.

The final bullet point above — viewing a deleted article or revision — presents a different issue; it does not involve taking action on Wikipedia, but rather accessing and sharing information. Somebody who tried publishing an article on Wikipedia, but then had it deleted, will often want to get their own writing back, or see what others had added to it, before trying again.

As a general rule, administrators are (and should be) very willing to perform this service for any good faith contributor who is trying to improve their article. (See the page on “userfication” for more detail.) There are some cases where content shouldn’t be shared at all — e.g., highly damaging, defamatory text — and others where it’s inappropriate to share it on Wikipedia, but not necessarily a problem to share it privately (e.g., material that might be a copyright violation). But lots of cases simply involve content that was not up to Wikipedia’s quality standards; and there is no harm whatsoever in passing the information along to pretty much anybody who wants it.

As an admin, I consider it my duty to discern problematic requests from unproblematic ones, and to quickly and painlessly honor the unproblematic ones. This holds regardless of whether the person asking is a paying client or somebody I’ve never heard of. It’s not terribly common that a paying client or prospective client would need this (it’s much more typical that a client of mine would have saved their own version of a page prior to publishing it), but when it does come up, I get them the information without hesitation. And I do the same for people who request it through non-business channels.

Next week, I will publish a similar piece about my role as an OTRS agent, i.e. one of the volunteers who responds to emailed requests, and has access to the database that supports that work. The following week, I’ll wrap up with some general reflections on the intersection between paid work and positions of trust in the Wikimedia sphere.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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