A survey of how paid Wikipedia services approach disclosure

Yesterday I described how one Wikipedia writing firm, David King’s Ethical Wiki, recently found that its practices ran afoul of Wikipedia’s Terms of Use (ToU), and announced changes to its practices. How do other agencies offering Wikipedia services approach similar issues? Here, I will explore the approaches of several other Wikipedia services.

First, on our own work: the Wiki Strategies model has never involved directly editing Wikipedia (neither articles nor talk pages) on our corporate clients’ behalf. But we do advise our clients, and our students as well, on how to properly disclose their affiliations. Our approach both predates (by five years) and exceeds the standards of last year’s ToU update. Notably, almost every one of our clients uses their real name on their Wikipedia account, which we believe establishes an important measure of accountability in the (non-Wikipedia) professional realm.

Next, let’s consider one paid Wikipedia editor, whose work relates to two Fortune 500 companies, among others. On their user page, the editor describes their commitment to the principle of transparency as “incredible,” and yet never mentions their own real name. Following the discussion around Mr. King’s approach, this editor did update their account to note what agency they work for, and to improve the disclosure of who their clients are.

Another agency’s staff do indeed provide full disclosure, but in some cases that disclosure has become buried in talk page archives, and is thus not easy for a reader to find. The staffers’ user pages mention the professional connections. Since the disclosure is not required to be preserved in any specific way, and since the user page declarations are redundant of the disclosures on the article talk pages, I see no ToU violations in these cases. I do see room for improvement in the nature of the disclosures, but to be fair, there is surely room for improvement in all of our business models.

There are also independent paid Wikipedia writers who make no disclosure whatsoever. Some, like one interviewed in the Wikipedia Signpost in March 2015, merely dabble in paid Wikipedia work; they don’t claim any special expertise or leadership in the Wikipedia or public relations worlds, and they sometimes plead ignorance of the disclosure requirements.

Other Wikipedia services (often called “black hat”) operate with no regard for the disclosure rules, or any of Wikipedia’s rules, except as obstacles to be routed around in serving their clients’ interests. This is a risky approach; over the years, numerous news reports have cried foul when undisclosed paid editing is discovered, and Wikipedia has blocked a number of such accounts from further editing.

Wikipedians in Residence — Wikipedians who have embedded themselves in galleries, libraries, archives, museums, universities, and non-profit organizations — occupy a professional realm with some similarities to the agencies considered above, but also some differences. Since such organizations are typically more closely aligned with Wikipedia’s mission than corporations are, Wikipedians in Residence have often worked openly on Wikipedia without controversy. There have been exceptions when they neglect to disclose their roles clearly; but since the ToU amendment passed in 2014, increased awareness has helped Wikipedians in Residence and their host institutions refine ethical and effective standards around this kind of work.

Most of the agency workers mentioned in this blog post decline to provide their real names on their Wikipedia user accounts. While maintaining anonymity violates no rule, it does offer some insight into a service’s disposition toward transparency, which likely impacts the extent to which volunteer editors are to collaborate with them.

In recent years, the ethics and implications of paid Wikipedia work have been deliberated in many venues, both within and outside the Wikipedia community. We have seen many nuances, widely varying opinions, and various business models.

But when Wikimedia amended its Terms of Use last summer, it created a simple standard that all Wikipedians and professionals connected to this issue should rally behind. Although the requirements around disclosure are not a panacea, they do establish an important and simple unifying principle, and they should be embraced by anyone claiming to have Wikipedia’s best interests at heart.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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