Wikipedia cofounder misrepresents the site’s rules on paid editing

Jimmy Wales. Photo by Victor Grigas, licensed CC BY-SA.

Jimmy Wales. Photo by Victor Grigas, licensed CC BY-SA.

Please scroll down for Jimmy Wales’ responses to this on Facebook and Quora, outlined in red.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is, unsurprisingly, frequently approached by reporters as a top authority on the site. For instance, the article “Wikipedia struggles to save its soul,” published in the Financial Times last week, which covers last week’s exposure of 381 “sock puppet” accounts used to edit Wikipedia covertly, evading the kind of disclosure required by last year’s amendment to the site’s Terms of Use (ToU).

But Wales is also a political advocate in the Wikipedia sphere; and some of his views are out of step with common practice and formal policy. He can be less than diligent about the distinction. The FT piece illustrates the issue starkly: after consulting Wales, reporter Murad Ahmed inaccurately represented the proposed-and-rejected “Bright Line” principle as the actual core rule on Wikipedia:

There are no firm rules on what can be published. Except one: the “bright line” rule. “If you are a paid advocate,” says Mr Wales, “you should disclose your conflict of interest and never edit article space directly.”

This is, quite simply, false. There is no Wikipedia rule barring anyone (besides explicitly banned editors) from working on any article on Wikipedia. There never has been. Ahmed confused Wales’ personal and well-established opinion about what those paid to edit Wikipedia should do, with an actual rule.

There is, however, a clear contender for “the one rule”: the paid editing amendment to the site’s Terms of Use passed in 2014. That amendment does indeed require disclosure of paid editing, but it does not prohibit paid editors from directly editing Wikipedia articles.

Wales’ words have caused similar confusion for many years, dating back to 2006, when he famously wrote:

It is not ok with me that anyone ever set up a service selling their services as a Wikipedia editor … the idea that we should ever accept paid advocates directly editing Wikipedia is not ever going to be ok. Consider this to be policy as of right now.

In many organizations, a founder and board member like Wales would be in a strong position to make the rules. This, presumably, can explain why a reporter would take Wales at his word about the site’s policies, rather than seeking out additional views. But for better or worse, Wikipedia’s unique governance model affords Wales less influence than he might otherwise have. On the topic of paid editing and and others (such as his role in founding Wikipedia), Wales has often inflated the status of his own opinions.

Update, 6:22 am PDT, Sept. 8, 2015

Jimmy Wales responded to this blog post in the Facebook group Wikipedia Weekly:

He later responded on Quora as well:


About Pete Forsyth

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