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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 and to agriculture; I work some on religious topics, and on a smattering of other things.

Favorite article titles:


Working on an essay about why WP:MEDRS exists. Please feel free to improve it! It is here: 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.

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 editing or unpaid advocacy.

But to put this in the language of WP - these are the two forces that drive editors to violate the WP:NPOV policy, WP:COI and WP:ADVOCACY.

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.

COI is created by associations and activities that people have outside of Wikipedia, such that editors have some interest that conflicts with Wikipedia's mission to present reliable, neutral information to the public. 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 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, the community needs some policy-based approach, that gains wide community consensus, to deal with paid editing. Any solution to - or better, any effective way to manage - COI in Wikipedia beyond voluntary disclosure, needs to take the "content not contributor" nexus seriously, and do everything it can to recognize and accommodate the passion with which a significant chunk of the community values it.

So what can be done, now?

First of all, there are a lot of paid and conflicted editors in Wikipedia, who disclose per the Terms of Use and follow the COI guideline. I don't know how many, but what I do know, is that In my day to day work at COIN, I find that many editors with a conflict were simply unaware of our guideline, and when informed of it, will comply, and want to do the right thing. I have watched them do so.

But the harder problem, is people who do not disclose. What about them?

There are really two kinds of paid editors.

1) There is a whole slew of editors (again, no one knows how many), who take freelance jobs at sites like Elance and create or update articles for pay. These editors often use sockpuppets, and our sock puppet investigation ("SPI") process is well-set to deal with socks. But one cannot use off-wiki evidence (like a profile at Elance) there. And additionally, fake joe jobbing profiles can be set up at sites like Elance, to slander people. This happened to a member of Arbcom, User:GorillaWarfare, who describes that on her user page. So what to do for this sort of paid editing?

My suggestion would be to do something like the following: allow a request to use off-wiki information (say a profile from Elance) to be submitted to SPI, in conjunction with a decent sock-puppet case. The off-wiki evidence could only be actually submitted (and submitted only privately) if a functionary there reviewed that case and found the on-wiki evidence compelling but not sufficient, and granted the request, and the off-wiki content would be considered only as one piece of the puzzle. It itself, could not be definitive. Perhaps also, only requests to use off-wiki information would be considered from auto-confirmed users (and maybe only users with a substantial number of edits), to prevent the process from being abused.

This would allow us to mine Elance and other sites for networks of sockpuppets. But we could only use that if we could find on-wiki evidence tying accounts together.

2) For long term editors who edit with a single account under a conflict of interest (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 ago, 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.

Those are my thoughts on the problems, anyway.

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.


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