Will Policy Changes Make Wikipedia More Trustworthy?

Chris CrumSearchNews

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The Wikimedia Foundation announced changes to its terms of service to address the problem of black hat paid editing of content such as Wikipedia articles. With half a billion people using Wikipedia every month, and the major search engines drawing from its information for quick answers to users' queries, it's pretty important that the content remains unbiased and factual, and not tainted by the influence of money in an undisclosed manner.

"This new change will empower Wikipedia’s editor community to address the issue of paid editing in an informed way by helping identify edits that should receive additional scrutiny," a spokesperson for the foundation tells WebProNews. "In addition, the change will help educate good-faith editors as to how they can continue editing in the spirit of the Foundation’s mission and provide additional tools in enforcing existing rules about conflicts of interest and paid editing."

Do you trust information on Wikipedia to be unbiased and factual? Do you think the new changes will help? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The issue has been around for a long time, but really gained a lot of attention last year when Wikimedia announced that it shut down hundreds of accounts for undisclosed paid edits. Prior to that, a Wikipedia editor had uncovered "the largest sockpuppet network in Wikipedia history," and a service called WikiPR was actively promoting services to manage clients' Wikipedia, employing admins, which have special rights over content and edits that others don't.

“Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature,” said Sue Gardner, the foundation's former executive director at the time. “Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a ‘black hat’ practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.”

Gardner recently stepped down from the executive director role, which was officially taken over by Lila Tretikov this month.

Earlier this year, the foundation had to let go a respected employee after it became known that she was involved in paid editing.

That was in January. In February and March, the Wikimedia community discussed the issue of undisclosed paid editing, and the changes that the foundation just announced gained "overwhelming" support from the community.

Wikimedia's Geoff Brigham writes in a blog post:

As explained in October of 2013, we believe that undisclosed paid advocacy editing is a black hat practice that can threaten the trust of Wikimedia’s volunteers and readers. We have serious concerns about the way that such editing affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia.

The change to the Terms of Use will address these concerns in a variety of ways. First, it will help educate and explain to good-faith editors how they may continue to edit in the spirit of the movement and mission, through simple disclosure of their affiliation. Second, it will empower the community to address the issue of paid editing in an informed way by helping identify edits that should receive additional scrutiny. Finally, it will provide an additional tool to the community and Foundation to enforce existing rules about conflicts of interest and paid editing.

Those who are being paid to edit will need to disclose the paid editing to comply with the new ToS, and add their affiliation to their edit summary, user page, or talk page, and "fairly disclose" their perspective. There's an FAQ about this here.

Those who edit Wikipedia as volunteers and "for fun" don't have to worry about anything changing with the new terms. Those employed by galleries, libraries, museums, etc. that pay employees to make "good faith" contributions are considered "welcome to edit" as long as the contributions aren't about the actual institutions themselves.

There's a letter from Wikimedia's board about paid contributions without disclosure here. Here's a sample:

Several editors raised concerns about the impact of this amendment on good-faith editors, such as first-time editors who aren’t familiar with our rules, or editors who work on projects with GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) or with universities. We ask everyone to be respectful of others and to help enforce existing community practices and policies about privacy and harassment, even in cases of suspected paid advocacy editing. The amendment is not intended to impact participants in GLAM projects, or professors, when they are writing about topics of general interest on their own, rather than writing about their own institutions while being compensated directly quid pro quo, for example.

Given the complexity of the issue, the Wikimedia Foundation will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the amendment, and remain open to changes as necessary to improve it. We thank everyone who participated in the community consultation.

Those who are paid to edit are also subject to laws such as those prohibiting fraudulent advertising.

Do you think the foundation's ToS changes will make a significant impact on the legitimacy of information presented in Wikipedia articles? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.