French Wikipedians discuss conflict of interest, paid editing

Editor’s note: Readers of this blog may be familiar with the ongoing controversies around paid editing on the English language Wikipedia. (See here for our past writings on the topic.) Wikipedia editors struggle with a number of issues around paid editing: conflict of interest, maintaining neutrality in our writing, tensions between volunteers committed to Wikipedia’s success and those primarily focused on their company’s interests, etc. These issues are of course not confined to the English language edition, or to the USA; but parallel discussions taking place across the ocean and in other languages can be difficult to track.

It was recently revealed that Racosh Sàrl, a public relations agency engaged in undisclosed and ethically questionable Wikipedia editing, was closely linked to the Swiss chapter of Wikimedia. In this post, we are pleased to present Gabriel Thullen, a Swiss Wikipedian who contributes primarily to the French language edition of Wikipedia, and one of the Wikimedia Switzerland board members who is not involved with the paid editing agency. Here, he describes the discussions among French Wikipedians that resulted brought the paid editing out into the open. Readers may also be interested in Gariel’s op-ed piece in the English Wikipedia’s Signpost.

French-speaking readers interested in the topic may wish to participate in a vote that is currently underway on the French Wikipedia.

Discussions on the French Wikipedia

by Gabriel Thullen

Gabriel Thullen, Swiss Wikipedian and board member of Wikimedia Switzerland. Photo CC BY-SA, Ludovic Péron.

Gabriel Thullen, Swiss Wikipedian and board member of Wikimedia Switzerland. Photo CC BY-SA, Ludovic Péron.

In February 2016, Jules78120 (an administrator on the French language Wikipedia) learned from a fellow Wikipedian, Nattes à chat, about the paid editing activities of a trio of experienced Swiss contributors operating through the PR company Racosch Sàrl. Their web site states:

Wikipedia by Wikipedians

Racosch is a Swiss boutique consulting firm specialised in editing Wikipedia articles.

Our clients are companies as much as high-profile individuals, as well as other Public Relations specialists who want to update or add factual information, correct inaccuracies or address the presence of unsightly banners at the top of articles.

On April 6, 2016, Jules wrote a piece on the Bistro (a central Wikipedia page for French-language community discussion) detailing the way he unsuccessfully tried to deal with these paid editing activities. He starts out by describing some very suspicious edits that occurred on one of the client’s article:

  • The article was proposed for deletion on December 9, 2015. This is standard procedure since an admissibility banner had been placed on the article in January 2015 (in fact, it was Manoillon who had placed the banner).
  • Manoillon votes to delete the article on December 9 saying that there was a lack of sources to determine whether the company is notable.
  • A few days later on December 15, Pplc (who was then called Leo Fischer) shows up on the article and adds references (sources). He points that out on the deletion discussion page on December 16, and 10 minutes later Manoillon transforms his negative vote into neutral saying that references (sources) had been added to the article.
  • These additional references (sources) convinced three other contributors to vote in favor of keeping the article.

Jules suggests that the company contacted Racosch, or more likely Racosch contacted the company when the article was up for deletion and this led up to being paid. Jules finds it problematic that only Leo Fischer/Pplc indicates that he had been paid for the article, and neither he nor Manoillon indicate that they work for the same consulting company.

Jules went on to describe a few other instances of collaboration among these editors on the articles of their clients (Debiopharm and Groupe Pictet). The Leo Fischer/Pplc account, as well as the third partner (Wicodric), are also active on the English language Wikipedia. They had not indicated that they were partners in a consulting firm and that they were sometimes coordinating their edits on articles.

Jules then asked Kimdime, another longtime administrator, for advice. Kimdime suggested that he contact the contributors by email. Jules started exchanging emails with them at the end of February, but the discussion eventually petered out. Feeling that the situation was still contrary to Wikimedia Foundation rules, and was not satisfactory in regard to transparency or to the spirit of the recommendations for paid editing, Jules went public with this affair, with his post on the Bistro, and asked community members for their opinion.

The discussion that followed was quite long, and I will try to summarize it. Jules pointed out that:

  1. The paid editors did not list all the articles they were involved with on behalf of their clients (which violates Wikipedia’s Terms of Use).
  2. The paid editors did not mention the name of their employer (which violates Wikipedia’s Terms of Use).
  3. The paid editors did not say that their contributions were linked every time they work for the same client (which violates widely accepted views (French, English) of what is appropriate).

One of the first items of concern was that these were longtime experienced wikipedians who could not claim that they did not know the rules on paid editing. It was especially disturbing to find out that they were working together without disclosing it.

After a while, the consensus was that these three contributors were acting in good faith, considering the depth of their knowledge concerning the inner workings of Wikipedia. One contributor even contended that, since the Wikipedians involved were very experienced, we should be satisfied that they didn’t take even greater steps to obscure their actions!

A day later, Jules posts again trying to recenter the discussion on his concerns, mainly the reluctance with which the three contributors were conforming to the Wikimedia TOU. Only one of the three had mentioned Racosch on their user page. After answering certain comments made by other contributors, he concludes by saying that after reading certain comments he had the impression of hearing “circulez, il n’y a rien à voir”. (“Move along, nothing to see here.”)

The discussion then shifted to finding ways of “avoiding this in the future”, at which point the Swiss paid editors joined in. One contributor proposed to improve the help page on paid editing, and provide them with tools to help them do their job right. A few other contributors were quite in favor of strict rules concerning paid editing, and are worried that this activity undermines Wikipedia with the risk that  the encyclopedia’s credibility will be even less than that of a politician.

A different discussion thread started out by suggesting that the articles written by the paid contributors be nominated for deletion, then let the community decide what to do with them. That discussion went on for a while, but came to no clear conclusions except for suggesting that contributors involved in paid editing of any sort (freelance, PR company, Wikipedian in residence, WMF staff …) should have a separate, clearly disclosed account for their “professional” contributions.

All in all, although important topics were discussed at length, there is no clear resolution to the issue on the French language Wikipedia.

About Gabriel Thullen

Gabriel Thullen is a Swiss Wikipedian who contributes primarily to the French language edition of Wikipedia, and a board member of Wikimedia Switzerland. His Wikipedia username is GastelEtzwane.
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