From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

I believe strongly in Wikipedia's Five Pillars. I try to find the best sources I can (per WP:RS and WP:MEDRS) for articles I work on, I read them, and strive to write WP:NPOV content based on them.

I work a lot here on articles related to health; I work some on religious topics, and on a smattering of other things.

Favorite article titles:

I've been around since 2008 and had made about 59,000 edits as of Febuary 2016 (overall contribs)

COI disclosure[edit]

I work for a startup company developing drugs for acute neurological disorders (not psychiatric, and not chronic, and CNS not PNS). We have no partnerships with any other drug companies. There is no article about our company in WP and I will not create an article about the company, nor edit it if someone else creates it, nor edit about drugs that exist or are in development for acute neurological disorders. To be conservative, I will not edit articles about acute neurological disorders themselves. I will not disclose the name of the company nor other specifics as the company is small and the disclosure would OUT me. Instead I am defining a fence around the area where my COI actually exists. Happy to discuss on my Talk page.


I drafted an essay about why WP:MEDRS exists that was moved to mainspace in August 2015. I hope you find it useful; please feel free to improve it! It is here: WP:Why MEDRS?

NPOV part 1: secondary sources[edit]

I haven't found anyplace where this is stated in one place, so wanted to pull together my perspective on this. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is not a newspaper (we are in no hurry, we don't have to report the latest and best). It is not a journal or a book, pulling together all the primary sources into a coherent picture—that is what scientists and other scholars do in review articles in journals and what historians do in their books.

Our mission is to express the sum of human knowledge. We are all editors. Our role is to read and understand the reliable secondary and tertiary sources, in which experts have pulled the basic research together into a coherent picture, and summarize and compile what those sources say, in clear English that any reader with a decent education can understand.

In topics I work in (especially articles related to health) I find that editors who want to cite primary sources and create extensive or strong content based on them fall in one of three buckets.

  • Sometimes they are scientists, who treat Wikipedia articles like they themselves are literature reviews and want to synthesize a story from primary sources. But articles here are encyclopedia articles, which is a different genre. Each article is meant to be "a summary of accepted knowledge regarding its subject" (emphasis added). (see WP:NOT)
  • Sometimes they are everyday people, who don't understand that the scientific literature is where science happens - it is where scientists talk to each other. The scientific literature is not intended for the general public, really. The internet has made it more available to the public, as has the open access movement. Both are a mixed blessing. The downside is that everyday people take research papers out of the context of the ongoing and always-developing discussion among scientists, and take individual papers as some kind of gospel truth, when each paper is really just a stepping stone (sometimes a false one) as we (humanity) apply the scientific method to understanding the world around us. Nonscientists don't know that many research articles in biology turn out to be dead ends, or unreplicable, or even withdrawn. (See Announcement: Reducing our irreproducibility from Nature, for example, which came after this and this were published). It is not that a review article somehow reaches backward in time and magically makes a research article more or less reliable; it is that you and i cannot know what research article will turn out to be replicable and/or accepted and built on by the relevant field, and which will not. Reviews tell us that. Here is an example of what we should not be doing. Remember that scientist who published work showing that if you shake cells (really!) you could turn them into stem cells? There was huge media hype around that. And yep, people rushed to add content based on the hyped primary source to WP. (Note the edit date, and the date the paper came out) only to delete it later when the paper was retracted. We should not be jerking the public around like that. There is no reason to do that - we have no deadline here.
  • Sometimes editors wanting to use primary sources are agenda-driven — there is something in the real world that is very important to them, and they want that idea expressed in WP and given strong WP:WEIGHT. In the very act of doing that — in selecting a given primary source and giving it a lot of weight (or any weight at all, actually) — they are performing original research. It is sometimes hard to get people to see this.

Wikipedia is not about what you think is important, right now, nor even what the media is hyping today. It is about what we know, as expressed in reliable sources. It is so hard for people to differentiate what they see and what they "know" from what humanity — as expressed by experts in a given field — knows.

It is hard for people to think like scholars, with discipline, and actually listen to and be taught by reliable secondary sources instead of acting like barroom philosophers who shoot from the hip or letting media hype drive them.

NPOV depends mightily upon editors' grasp of secondary sources. We have to find good ones - recent ones - and absorb them, and see what the mainstream positions are in the field, what are "significant minority opinions", and what views are just plain WP:FRINGE. We have to let the best sources teach us. And yes, it takes commitment - both in time, and to the values of Wikipedia - to really try to find the best secondary sources, access them, absorb them, and learn from them how to distribute WEIGHT in a Wikipedia article. yep.

What makes this even more challenging is that because this is a volunteer project, Wikipedia editors often come here and stay here due to some passion. This passion is a double-edged sword. It drives engagement and the creation of content but too often brings with it advocacy for one position or another. This is a quandary. The discipline of studying secondary sources and editing content based on those sources, in putting egos aside and letting the secondary sources speak, is the key that saves Wikipedia from our personal, limited perspectives.

If you have inserted content into an article based on a primary source and I have deleted it, it is not because I disagree with the content. The content has nothing to do with it. The issue is that we as editors cannot perform the original research to select a given primary source over other primary sources (that say different things) and assign any weight to it at all.

  • While WP:OR allows primary sources to be used, it is "only with care, because it is easy to misuse them";
  • WP:NPOV says "Neutrality assigns weight to viewpoints in proportion to their prominence. However, when reputable sources contradict one another and are relatively equal in prominence, describe both approaches and work for balance. This involves describing the opposing views clearly, drawing on secondary or tertiary sources that describe the disagreement from a disinterested viewpoint."
  • WP:VERIFY, in a section called "Original Research", says "Base articles largely on reliable secondary sources. While primary sources are appropriate in some cases, relying on them can be problematic. For more information, see the Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources section of the NOR policy, and the Misuse of primary sources section of the BLP policy."

The call to use secondary sources is deep in the guts of Wikipedia. This is a meta-issue — a question of what it means to be an editor on Wikipedia.

NPOV part 2: COI and advocacy in Wikipedia[edit]

Along with my editing, I work at the Conflict of interest Noticeboard ("COIN"), trying to help deal with Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia.

Strictly speaking there is only one force that drives editors to violate the WP:NPOV and WP:NOTADVOCACY policies, and that is advocacy - namely using (really abusing) Wikipedia as a vehicle to promote or denigrate something (a person, a product, a company or institution, an idea...whatever).

It is pretty easy to tell by reading an article with WP's policies and guidelines in mind, if an advocate has had a big influence on it. There will be colorful language (puffery or denigrating), and an overall positive or negative tone. One or more aspects may have way too much or too little weight in line with the tone. There will generally be unsourced content, and sources that are present will be poor (press releases, blogs, etc), or even fake. When you look at the editing history of an article like that, you often find that one or more single purpose accounts have been working on it.

The question here is why. Is the person "just" a fan or hater, or are they maybe the subject of the article, or a friend (or enemy), or are they an employee of a relevant company, or of a PR agency? These are appropriate questions when one encounters POV editing. But they need to be real questions. (more on below, in the "How I try to help manage COI in WP subsection below)

But generally we make a distinction within WP, between fans/haters (whom we just call "advocates"), and people with what we define as as a COI. (Please note that I said "generally" because if an editor is a hater of a person, the policy WP:BLPCOI applies (you cannot use WP to carry on a real world dispute with someone in Wikipedia), and the WP:COISELF part of the COI guideline apples to any external personal relationship.)

In Wikipedia, you are editing under a COI if you write about yourself, your friends (or enemies) or family, or your employer, or your employer's products, or you are a freelancer or work for a PR agency and are working on behalf of a client. All of those kinds of external relationships create a COI in Wikipedia, when a person works on the topics where they have a COI. Can a person with a COI, edit in a neutral way, with great sourcing, etc? Of course they can - many things are possible. However, humans being human, most often editors working under a COI edit as advocates. This is especially true for editors who work for PR agencies or who are freelancers working on articles for clients. We call editors like that (as well as company employees who are instructed to "buff up" some article) "paid advocates", or "paid editors".

There are editors in Wikipedia who are gravely concerned about the corrupting influence of paid editing in WP. There is reason be concerned - it happens. No one knows how much, as there is no data on this, and no one knows what corrupts Wikipedia more, paid advocacy or unpaid advocacy.

It is really hard for the community to manage people who are just fans or haters - and topics where there are big controversies in the real world tend to end up at Arbcom.

But it is clear, that conflict of interest is an issue for any knowledge-producing and knowledge-presenting organization, and WP is definitely one of them. We have a responsibility to manage the COI of editors who are part of the community.

The big tension in WP[edit]

As I said above, COI is created by associations and activities that people have outside of Wikipedia, such that editors have some actual interest - some connection with a person or organization outside of WP - that conflicts with Wikipedia's mission to present reliable, neutral information to the public. Really managing COI, would require the community to delve into those associations and activities.

However, there is a stark tension between that, and a whole nexus of stuff deep in the guts of WP. Namely:

  • the other part of the mission of WP, to be "an encyclopedia that anyone can edit"
  • the closely associated anonymity that we permit editors to have (protected by WP:OUTING which is strictly enforced here)
  • the focus on behavior, content, and sources (not contributors) (protected by the no personal attacks policy and guided by the talk page guidelines)
  • in other words -- the fundamental principle here that it doesn't matter who you are here - what matters is what you do.

The nexus of all that, is what makes WP the radical experiment that it is - it makes this "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit".

This tension between a strong desire to manage COI editing, and the "content not contributor" nexus, is why the community has failed to reach consensus to make our guidance document on COI into a policy and not just a guideline, as it is now. It is why, even after the Banc de Binary scandal and the Wiki-PR scandal, the community had no less than five proposals to ban paid editing and every one of them failed to reach consensus. (If you want to read the failed proposals, you can find them in the "Further reading" section of the COI editing in WP article. If you do, really try to listen to what both sides are saying. The tension I am describing is very easy to see.)

Additionally, there are RW concerns with making claims about editors' outside associations - and especially taking action based on those claims. In some parts of the world, libel and slander cases are not difficult to bring and responsible parties like members of Arbcom ~could~ be financially responsible for defending themselves in court, and ~could~ be held personally/financially responsible for decisions they make.

As a result of the community's failure to act (at least that is how I explain what follows), the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia and other Wiki-projects, updated the Terms of Use to make it a requirement that paid editors disclose their "employer, client, and affiliation", and that they follow community policies and guidelines (which would mean our COI guideline). This community has struggled with how to implement that. Our Arbcom has stated (unanimously!): "The Committee has no mandate to sanction editors for paid editing as it is not prohibited by site policies. The arbitration policy prevents the Committee from creating new policy by fiat. The Committee does have, however, a longstanding mandate to deal with activities often associated with paid editing—POV-pushing, misrepresentation of sources, and sometimes sockpuppetry—through the application of existing policy."

So what to do? I don't see the community coming to any Big Solutions any time soon. So we just need to work on the ground, editor by editor and edit by edit, as always. See my approach below.

How I try to help manage COI in WP[edit]

Everybody in WP wants content that is NPOV and well sourced. Everybody agrees that editors with a COI tend to be biased. Views diverge strongly from that point.

The approach I have arrived at after a bunch of trial and error, is in a framework of "management", which is something that I think everybody in WP could get behind. The concept of "managing COI" is widely used in academia and elsewhere. In any kind of management situation, you get the best results by educating people about what you want, and giving them the tools to do what you want.

The two key steps in managing COI are disclosing the COI, and peer review. When I encounter edits that make a COI seem likely (it always starts and ends with content), I first look to see if the editor has disclosed any COI formally (which is rare) or if they have written something on a talk page or in an edit note, where they disclose some relationship. Then I approach the editor who made the edits, and explain the importance of preserving the integrity of WP content, and if I have found some disclosure, I explain that they have a COI in WP and what that means. If I have found no disclosure, I ask the editor to disclose any connection they have with the subject of the article (and I note that they don't have to disclose personal information per OUTING, just the relationship). When I ask, the question is authentic. I do not know, and I cannot know, what external relationships an editor might have, unless he or she discloses it. In conversation, I draw out a disclosure. Once that is done, I ask them to follow a peer review process. In other words, if they want to create an article, they should submit it through AfC, and if they want to change content to an existing article, they should submit a suggestion on the article Talk page using the {{request edit}} template/tool.

Sometimes people's responses in dialogue make it clear (believably) that they have no COI, but really are just fans (or haters). If that happens, I ask them to read WP:SPA, the WP:ADVOCACY essay (which is really good), and the WP:PROMO policy, and ask them to try to be more neutral. If someone is an expert and doesn't quite get how WP works (and especially if they were adding a bunch of citations to their own work to articles) I point them to WP:EXPERT which is also very helpful.

I'll add here that sometimes these discussions go well, and sometimes they go badly. When they go badly, it could be that I was having an off day and was too harsh, or that the editor reacts defensively and can't get past that, or some combination. Humans are messy, and dealing with COI issues in WP is especially messy. But generally discussions go well.

This is a management approach to the issue. Most COI editors are happy to understand the process and say they will comply, and I generally find them complying. (I keep semi-template language here that I use when I approach people. Please feel free to use it - it is just my sandbox so is messy, sorry)

I take the same approach with anybody who has a COI, be they a "contract editor" or a company employee writing about the company or its products.

In my experience, contract editors are more difficult. They tend to hide and when approached, tend to lie more. Thinking about where they are coming from, this makes sense, as their income is dependent on their editing here (unlike a company employee who probably has lots of other things they do at the company) and following the COI management process puts their income at risk; the disclosure leads to scrutiny and possibly deletion of their contributions, and the peer review process makes things less efficient and less predictable (both of which, from their perspective, mess up their business model).

Many paid editors come with a sense of entitlement, thinking they have a "right" to edit and feeling unhappy and aggrieved with scrutiny and suspicion. Sometimes, more education - explaining the context more - helps. When I explain what Wikipedia actually is (per WP:NOT), that editing WP is not a right, but a privilege (freely offered to all, but that can be restricted or lost), and the history of paid editing scandals, and really emphasize the importance of not shitting in your own backyard (in the sense that biased content harms the credibility of Wikipedia, and if the public loses trust in WP, the very reason that the paid editor wants to get content into WP will vanish, as fewer and fewer people will consult it), sometimes they "get it", and stop complaining and start complying. Sometimes. When they do, offering them the {{{paid}} template (still under development) will be a simple tool to help them disclose per the ToU.

But even so, many paid editors have short term vision and goals, and want to get their edits done and get paid. These are the situations that require a pivot from a management approach to an enforcement approach. For these editors, the COI cannot be managed, but needs to eliminated. We do this by removing editing privileges, completely or in part.

In the Wikipedia that actually exists, the enforcement approach is difficult, due to OUTING and the support for paid editing in some quarters, which makes it unwise to be too aggressive in taking admin actions without a very solid basis (admin actions should of course always have a solid basis, but admin actions around paid editing will likely be scrutinized in light of the controversy and strong feelings) The advantage of having gone through everything I describe above, is that sometimes when a paid editor is finally resistant - sometimes - he or she actually discloses that he or she has edited for pay, without making a full disclosure per the ToU. In those cases, the enforcement of the ToU is simple, and there are growing number of admins who will block for clear violations of the ToU. In cases where they haven't disclosed editing for pay, enforcement requires time and work, gathering diffs and presenting a case.

Either way, in my experience, managing COI editors, contract or otherwise, takes a bunch of work, and the "enforcement approach" is generally only something that is useful to deploy at the end of the process, when the COI cannot be managed, but must be eliminated. Sometimes the work that has already been done makes that easy; other times it requires a bunch more work gathering diffs.

With regard to editors who really appear to have a COI, but deny it when asked (like Wifione) - or who are advocates (aka POV-pushers) - at the end of the day, if they are indeed warping Wikipedia, that is going to be evident in their editing. (Right? If they actually warped WP, it will be there to see, with diffs to be had) You will be able to see them deleting well-sourced content that is opposed to their interests, and adding only content and sources that favor their interests. You can see this in the evidence page of the Wifione case, here. So the case to bring, is an NPOV-violation case. Most of the evidence in the Wifione case was prior to February 2013. The case could have been settled two years before it was, based on that evidence. I don't know why (and I really don't) it wasn't brought sooner. Politics? Someone just didn't think of it? Don't know. But we have the model now. I have tried to bring a case or two like this, and will continue to try. This is the only viable way to deal with concerns about editors like this.

Self-initiated COI Investigation[edit]

I initiated a COI investigation of myself with regard to ag biotech, articles concerning which are often contentious, and in discussion of which COI charges can fly too easily: results are here. (diff)

Here is what happened there. Via email with an oversighter, I disclosed my real life identity and what i do for a living, my life story, and my work history, and we had some discussion about that. The oversighter with whom I emailed evaluated all that (and based on what he wrote, did some research on his own based on what i told him) and found no COI for anything related to ag biotech. I did not mention editing for pay, as I have never done that. I was not asked if I edit for pay and we did not discuss that. In case I have never said it before (it is hard to believe I haven't with all the hammering I have gotten): i have never been paid, or received any consideration of any kind, for anything I do in Wikipedia, nor have I expected to, nor do I expect to, nor have I ever agreed to. I edit here purely as a volunteer; it has never been, and is not, part of my day job nor any paid work nor any volunteer work i do outside of my day job. I have tried to make that as broad and clear as possible - I am not a paid editor. I have no COI for ag biotech.

If you care, i explained how i got interested in ag biotech on an older version of this page, which you can see here.

I ask myself the questions in WP:Tendentious editing all the time. I cringe sometimes, but overall, I think I am clean. We are all human, and I have made mistakes. When I have, and have seen them, I have acknowledged them and done what I could to apologize and correct them. The goal of my work here is to create a great encyclopedia per the five pillars.

GMO arbitration case - privileges removed[edit]

In the fall of 2015 an Arbcom case was opened, and it was closed in December 2015: Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case/Genetically_modified_organisms. Notice of the close was given to me here.

I was "indefinitely topic-banned from all pages relating to genetically modified organisms and agricultural chemicals, broadly interpreted"; I was "admonished for their poor civility in relation to the locus of this case", and an interaction ban was imposed with another user.


⚕ This user is a member of WikiProject Medicine.
Wikipedia Rollbacker.svg This user has rollback rights on the English Wikipedia. (verify)