I've have spent a good portion of the last 3 years working on all aspects of the paid editing debate. I've written about the littered history of bad actors who have damaged our reputation (and theirs) with biased editing, composed help guides for those with little clue how Wikipedia really works, and spent time with corporate/for-profit editors who have good intentions but often little understanding of our policies and procedures. My motivation has been to research the issues we face surrounding paid editing, and do what I can to streamline and refocus our efforts to work on them:
- I assisted hundreds of paid editors through the irc-en-help channel, Articles for Creation, and OTRS
- I voluntarily advised representatives from Monitor Group, Occidental Petroleum, Eli Lilly, and the U.S. Government about our policies and guidelines.
- I wrote the bulk of our Wikipedia article on Conflict of interest editing on Wikipedia
- I conducted the Signpost series Does Wikipedia Pay?
- I put together a 'simple ruleset' for COI/PR editors: The plain and simple conflict of interest guide
- I gave a speech to the Public Relations Society of America called Learning to Speak in Wikipedia's Language
- I joined WikiProject Cooperation and the Wikipedia/PR Facebook called Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement (CREWE)
- (Along this journey, I never received payment or compensation for any of my work)
These experiences have informed by belief that relationship between the Wikipedia community and corporate/for-profit editors needs improvement. Corporate/for-profit editing already exists widely, and it is a growing phenomenon. Mostly it happens in secret under the cover of anonymity and when discovered results in blocks, bans, and media scandals. The best of these editors, however, are clear about their background and transparent about their process. They seek feedback, provide sources, and propose drafts. These are the editors and the practices I want to promote. We can educate corporate/for-profit editors, and give them the support they need to edit in harmony with our policies. We can help them to be purposeful and constructive contributors. In order to do that, we need to put together more constructive guidance so that we can improve the strained, negative, and unproductive dynamic that has been at play for years. The way I would like to start down that path is with a voluntary set of agreements called COI+.
The primary purpose of the COI+ agreements is to change the tone from mutual skepticism to opportunistic collaboration. I'm not trying to introduce corporate/for-profit editors to Wikipedia. They already exist. And advocacy of any type is banned by WP:NPOV and WP:NOT. The question is what to do with the corporate/for-profit editors who are already here and the many more who want to know how to interact with us. My motivation is to encourage corporate/for-profit editors to disclose their COI, educate themselves about policy, follow appropriate channels for escalation so other editors can review their suggestions, not edit directly unless they are completely ignored after following appropriate channels for one month, and only then after leaving clear notice of their changes. I'm not seeking to legitimize paid editing, I'm seeking to deal with it.
COI+ vs. WP:COI vs. Brightline
Our current WP:COI guideline has brought us to this impasse. WP:COI is doesn't outright ban anything, it just strongly discourages or very strongly discourages--it doesn't require disclosure, and it does not deal with what happens if our editors don't respond to a corporate/for-profit editor's requests for assistance and talk page engagement.
Some editors assert that there already exists a "bright line" prohibition on direct editing, and that that is the current consensus. Some want such a position to be policy or consensus, but it's simply not the case. Neither a 2009 or a 2012 RfC about paid and COI editing resulted in a consensus for an outright prohibition of paid/COI editors or direct editing by them. The WP:COI guideline's WP:NOPAY section "very strongly discourages" paid editing but does not explicitly prohibit it. In short, there is nothing in WP:COI that says one can't make a neutral, well-sourced, encyclopedic change to an article where s/he has a COI, even if one is a corporate representative or for-profit editor. Further, for as many people who have supported a prohibition on direct editing there is another editor who calls COI a distraction and cites WP:NPOV as the only relevant policy. For those reasons, I simply don't believe that Brightline will ever gain consensus. It's also not ideal, as it could drive paid advocates under ground, has no requirement for disclosure, and offers no reasonable assurance to corporate/for-profit editors of a timely response to their suggested changes.
COI+ seeks a middle ground between the current ambiguity of WP:COI and the severity of Brightline prohibitions on any direct editing.
- COI+ would carefully appeal to corporate/for-profit editors by welcoming them to the community, educating them about our mission and policies, and guiding them towards constructive interaction;
- COI+ would require disclosure--in triplicate--on user pages, relevant article talk pages, and with links to COI declarations in user signatures
- COI+ would permit direct editing only as a last resort: if no Wikipedia editor even responded to a corporate/for-profit editor's suggestions or proposed changes within a month--after their going through talk pages, help boards, noticeboards, and OTRS--then such an editor could make a change directly--if they left clear notice at both the relevant article talk page and at the COI noticeboard.
|Element||WP:COI (WP:NOPAY)||WP:COI+||Bright Line|
|Targets||Editors with a conflict of interest (paid advocates)||Corporate/for-profit editors||Paid advocates|
|Definition||An editor with conflicting/competing interests other than Wikipedia's (anyone receiving monetary or other benefits to edit or with a close, financial, relationship with a subject)||An editor with a direct professional and financial investment a subject||An editor paid to influence Wikipedia|
|Position||(Very) strongly discourages direct editing||Encourages transparent, regulated, constructive collaboration||Prohibits direct editing, allows non-article-space engagement|
|Exceptions||Uncontroversial edits||Uncontroversial edits, emergencies, edit requests not responded to within a month provided article talk page and COI/N are left immediate notice||Emergencies|
|Disclosure||Not required (recommended)||Required on userpages, relevant article talk pages, and in user signatures||Not required|
|Response timeline||None/unlimited||1 month||None/unlimited|
The COI+ agreements
In fulfilling the COI+ program, COI editors on Wikipedia agree to:
COI editors who adhere to this code of conduct can expect to:
Wikipedia is a very busy, free-form place and officially has no deadline. COI editors should use the following timeline to minimize the likelihood of being accused of premature action. If one of these steps does not lead to resolution by the given timeline, go to the next step:
COI+ is intended to make it easier for the editorial community to identify editors with a COI who are trying to do the right thing. Participants may receive more civility and good faith from the community, while helping shield themselves from media backlash. It is also a way for those editors to distinguish themselves in their private businesses or corporations as individuals who are informed about best practices and equipped with the necessary tools to be productive and respected members of the thcommunity. Participation in the COI+ program would be a strong step towards showing that an editor aspires to be honest, trustworthy and fair, while demonstrating integrity and respect for Wikipedia. COI+ also sets up a minimum level of knowledge for the editor, skills they need to be effective for the level of engagement they are participating in.
The COI+ project is entirely voluntary. COI+ participants would be expected to follow all Wikipedia policies and guidelines, like any other editor. COI+ participants would always be subject to community sanctions, including blocks and bans. However, good-faith efforts to follow the steps laid out in this project might be taken into account when deciding the best course of action for remedying an editor's behavior.
The COI+ protocol is not a panacea. The best editors don't need it and the bad editors won't follow it. There is a huge middle ground, however, of people who are well meaning but ignorant or outright scared of Wikipedia. This balances with the tremendous skepticism and even hostility among many experienced editors of the motives and behaviors of corporate/for-profit editors. COI+ would be a way to move both sides towards functioning collaboration.
I came to Wikipedia with much cynicism of corporate motives myself and was convinced that Wikipedia was one rare place we could right those wrongs. I quickly but not without difficulty learned that Wikipedia's role is much more narrow and much more important than that. Neutrality means that we can only represent the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Despite this, and to my surprise I have found that even many corporate/for-profit editors can actually help us with that mission--provided they are given clear education, guidance, processes, and also limits. I've had direct experience with many people from this part of the world and found them to have something to offer us. We can use them. Further, if we want to be the definitive resource for knowledge in the world, we simply have to engage with these voices.
Not all editors will want to work with corporate/for-profit editors, but, we have a duty to make sure articles are accurate and neutral--and if these editors make constructive suggestions than we cannot just ignore them because we don't like their financial incentives, organization, background, or cause. Working with corporate/for-profit editors already happens: in irc-en-help, at Articles for Creation, at WikiProject Cooperation, and on numerous article talk pages. I've done a lot of such work myself and know many others who feel a responsibility to do just that. I believe that the more clear guidance we give to corporate/for-profit editors, the easier it will be to work with them, and the more we'll benefit from their participation.
Who would sign on to COI+?
Any editor with a COI who wanted to identify themselves as following a high standard of ethical principles and practices could sign on to COI+. Obvious targets for endorsing or participating in COI+ include:
- Public relations organizations like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), and Society for New Communications Research (SNCR)
- Wikipedia consulting companies like Wikiexperts, Untrikiwiki, Beutler Wiki Relations, New Media Strategies, EthicalWiki, and WikiStrategies
- Corporate and company departments like Corporate communications, Public relations and others.
Responding to objections
Before you oppose this proposal, please consider these points:
- 'Corporate/for-profit editor' does not automatically mean 'one who engages in advocacy'. A person with a COI can make constructive contributions, although there's a higher risk of bias, even unintentionally.
- COI+ would be a voluntary agreement, not a guideline.
- COI+ is not really different than Brightline prohibitions on direct paid editing. Only if we fail in our role by not responding to appropriate talk page and noticeboard escalation by corporate/for-profit editors within a month does COI+ permit direct editing--along with the added precaution of notification to the article talk page and the COI noticeboard.
- COI+ is more strict than WP:COI, because it requires disclosure, edit requests, and talk- page/COI noticeboard notifications.
- WP:COI strongly or strongly or very strongly discourages but does not outright ban such editing. Neutral, well-sourced edits by any editor, including corporate/for-profit representatives are not prohibited by any policy or guideline.
- Corporate representatives can identify inaccuracies, incompleteness, or bias in articles about their products, clients, and companies. Not all of our articles about those products, clients, and companies are free of error, incompleteness, and bias.
- It is better for COI editors to participate constructively with full disclosure than to edit anonymously, be confused by vague guidelines, or be driven underground to edit in secret by unenforceable prohibitions.
- It's not ok for suggestions by COI editors to go unresponded-to indefinitely. COI+ permits direct editing as a last resort.
- Our unpaid volunteers don't have the luxury of ignoring corporate/for-profit representatives. Many editors are working with them already.
This is a very controversial area, and I have tried avoid the rancor which divides editors into camps and instead seek careful, effective middleground. This proposal is an attempt to move in a better direction, to encourage editors with financial conflicts of interests to participate in improving Wikipedia articles in a way that benefits Wikipedia as a whole and is acceptable to the broader community. The community must therefore be comfortable with COI+ and be willing to support it. The community must evaluate whether COI+ is reasonable, within policy, and likely to be effective. I'd appreciate all of your thoughts and feedback at the RfC.