Yesterday, c|net blogger Violet Blue wrote about conflict of interest in Wikipedia editing. She called into question the consulting services of Roger Bamkin and Max Klein, both highly regarded Wikipedians occupying positions of trust in the Wikipedia community.
Above all, I want to call out the inclusion of Max Klein in this article. He doesn’t belong there. Ms. Blue makes two statements that are problematic:
Wikipedians In Residence are not allowed to operate if there are conflicts of interest and are not allowed to edit the pages of the organization they liaison with.
This statement is offered without attribution or sourcing. As a longtime Wikipedian and someone closely involved in the evolution of the Wikipedian in Residence role, I take great exception to this claim. Whatever its source, it should have been double-checked, and the double-checking would have revealed that it’s a fabrication. [Update: as discussed below, it turns out Ms. Blue was talking specifically about the definition of a Wikipedian in Residence, something that is indeed defined, but not enshrined in any formal policy.]
First, I don’t believe there is any person on the planet who has no conflict of interest whatsoever — much less somebody who is earning a paycheck. The absence of a conflict of interest would be an absurdly naive standard for a Wikipedian in Residence. What is expected of a Wikipedian of Residence is that he or she would manage any conflict of interest in a transparent and responsible way; not that there would be no conflict.
Second, there is no prohibition against editing the page of the organization they work with. [Note: as Lori Byrd Phillips points out below, the more important and clearer point is that there was never any suggestion that Mr. Klein edited, or intended to edit, his host institution’s article. There’s no tie between his advertised consulting activities and his residency.] Such a prohibition simply doesn’t exist. [Note: I should have specified, I meant as a matter of formally adopted policy, which would be needed for Ms. Blue’s “not allowed” claim to apply.] The conflict of interest guideline on Wikipedia offers some relevant cautionary notes, but that’s all. Again, a Wikipedian in Residence would be expected to draw on his or her personal experience and network, to guide the organization along an ethical path; the claim that there is a black-and-white rule about what a Wikipedian in Residence can or can’t do is another fabrication.
Ms. Blue also characterizes Mr. Klein’s offering as follows:
[an] open offer to navigate tricky Wikipedia conflict of interest rules as a service for for paying clients
Though she doesn’t say so directly, the implication of her post appears to be that helping clients understand and operate within Wikipedia’s rules is somehow unethical.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The error Ms. Blue has made, I believe, is to confuse “navigate” with “circumnavigate.” Mr. Klein makes no suggestion that he will work with clients in a way that helps them evade Wikipedia’s rules. Wikipedia’s policies, guidelines, and culture are notoriously complex; helping a client to understand how they relate to a specific situation is a valuable service, and it’s pure speculation to suppose that Mr. Klein ever intended to do anything other than that.
The questions raised around Mr. Bamkin’s services are more complex, and, I believe, worthy of some deliberation and discussion. Perhaps unlike Ms. Blue, I have full confidence that Mr. Bamkin has worked in accordance with both the spirit and the letter of the strategic goals of the Wikimedia movement, without any intent to subvert them. I look forward to a robust discussion about the proper boundaries of Wikipedia consulting.