News and notes
WMF employee forced out over "paid advocacy editing"
On 8 January, the Wikimedia Foundation notified
mailing list that Sarah Stierch
, a popular Wikimedian and the Foundation's Program Evaluation Community Coordinator, no longer works for the organization as a result of accepting payment to create articles on the English Wikipedia.
The issue of paid advocacy—the practice of being paid to promote something—has long been thorny on the English Wikipedia. The most recent battle was over the public relations company Wiki-PR, whose employees created, edited, or maintained several thousand Wikipedia articles for paying clients using a sophisticated array of concealed user accounts, violating several English Wikipedia policies in the process. These practices were exposed by the Signpost and other news outlets.
Shortly after, the executive director of the Foundation, Sue Gardner, authored a press release that in part distinguished between paid editing and paid advocacy:
Gardner could not have predicted that the very next controversy would be so close to home, involving the dismissal of Sarah Stierch, whose paid-for editing activities were first revealed in a blog post. This included a screenshot of Stierch's profile on oDesk, a global clearinghouse for the hiring and management of remote workers. The profile showed that she had been paid US$300 to author a Wikipedia page for an "individual", along with two billed hours for a "Wikipedia Writer Editor" job that was "in progress". Since that screenshot, the profile has been updated to rate her work at five stars, saying "Thanks, Sarah! I really appreciate you!".
Sarah Stierch: WMF staff photograph
The Foundation uses
oDesk to pay its contractors and most of its non-US workforce; the screenshot clearly shows that Stierch's account had previously been credited for more than a thousand hours of work for a previous WMF position—a community fellowship
—as far back as January 2012.
The topic also hit the talkpage of Jimmy Wales, the outspoken co-founder of Wikipedia, who immediately intoned: "I very very strongly condemn such editing, and this is no exception."
Just days after the revelations, Stierch found herself without her WMF job. Frank Schulenburg, the Foundation's Senior Director of Programs, told the community that she edited for pay "even though it is widely known that paid editing is frowned upon by many in the editing community and by the Wikimedia Foundation" (he later corrected this statement to read "paid advocacy editing" rather than paid editing).
In his announcement of Stierch's dismissal, Schulenburg wrote, without overt irony: "I would like to believe that the Wikimedia movement is a place of forgiveness and compassion. ...". It can only be speculated what the motivations were for Stierch's paid editing, but a sense of this might be gleaned from her tweets in late December.
The Signpost asked Schulenburg whether Wales was involved in the decision to sack Stierch. He replied: "We aren’t going to give specifics about a personnel matter. In general, decisions about dismissals are made by an employee's manager, in consultation with HR and other parts of the staff." On whether the boundary between paid editing and paid advocacy was a factor in the decision to dismiss, Schulenburg was unforthcoming: "The terms paid editing and paid advocacy are very specific, and may not always be clear to many." Other questions he deferred as a "personnel matter", declining to go beyond what was stated in his opening post.
The WMF does not appear to have an explicit agreement with its employees or contractors that bans them from either paid editing or paid advocacy. We asked WMF spokesperson Jay Walsh whether the Foundation explicitly forbids its employees from either paid editing or paid advocacy:
Walsh told us that some of the basic substance of the agreement is in the WMF's COI policy, which is specifically aimed at officers, board members, and executives; however, "this is not exactly the same as the employee agreements. Not all of those agreements are necessarily identical, given that staff work in different jurisdictions around the world. But the basic principles and expectations are the same."
Back in the early years, I had a little statement on my userpage encouraging people to donate money to me if they liked my work and wanted me to do more on Wikipedia. —Erik Möller, deputy vice-president, WMF
The Foundation's conflict-of-interest policy does insist that a "Covered Person"—which does not include employees such as Stierch—acknowledge "not less than annually, that he or she has read and is in compliance with this policy on a pledge of personal commitment."
Wikipediocracy, the persistent blog and forum dedicated to discussing and criticizing the Wikimedia movement, kindled press coverage by tipping off the Daily Dot's Tim Sampson. The resulting article outlined the controversy and explored the site's previous coverage of the English Wikipedia's experience with paid advocacy. Another early runner was the major German-language news portal Heise.de, with a particular focus on IT. Ars Technica, The Independent, Netzpolitik, and Il Messaggero followed. Although Stierch is saying nothing publicly about the incident, Walsh told the Signpost that "it's her decision if she should wish to speak about the matter."
Many commentators confuse paid editing with paid advocacy, despite Sue Gardner's attempt to distinguish the two. Paid editing is commonly accepted on Wikimedia projects, most prominently in the form of collaborations with public institutions such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. One such editor is Dominic McDevitt-Parks, the recently hired digital content specialist at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has contributed a set of guidelines for its staff when editing Wikipedia during the course of their job, created after the unrelated Gibraltar scandal in Europe.
McDevitt-Parks has uploaded to the English Wikipedia his full job description and a personal FAQ page, where he takes on the notion that he could be considered to have a conflict of interest when editing the site: "As a cultural institution with an educational mission, we believe that there are certain activities we can undertake where NARA and Wikimedia have a shared interest, rather than a conflict of interest. ... The two organizations have a conflict of interest when it comes to, for example, the National Archives and Records Administration article itself, but we do not have an interest in editing those types of articles."
Some of the other Wikipedias take a starkly different approach by allowing corporate-named accounts and direct editing by the paid employees of firms. Dirk Franke is a long-standing member of the German editing community and has just taken up a position with the German chapter (unrelated to paid editing). The Signpost asked him what the German Wikipedia's current stance towards paid editing/advocacy is. Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, not his employer, he said the situation is complicated: a number of editors are very outspoken against it, but the project had two major "non-binding" polls on banning it completely, and both failed by big margins. "The majority of the community seems to grudgingly accept a policy of toleration—we can't stop it without massively violating WP:ANON, so we try to make the best out of it." In his opinion:
||... the community by now has a pretty good grasp how they can recognize PR-editing and how to differentiate the behaviour of different kinds of editors. If people try to be manipulative, stealthy, or insert POV, Wikipedians react rather aggressively. But when paid editors ask and try to work with the community, normally people tolerate them or even help them.
The German Wikipedia and its local support team keep a register of official institutional editor accounts. It has a "user verification" system in place that attempts to prevent unauthorized people from operating from what would appear to be an official account for a business or individual. The process is simple, involving an email from a company domain sent to Wikimedia's OTRS system. The result is editors like Benutzer:Coca-Cola De, an account for the Coca-Cola Company. Such an account would be immediately blocked on the English Wikipedia under its username policy. Oddly, they are still free to edit—as long as they use a different username that would not be considered "promotional".
The Swedish Wikipedia also welcomes paid editors. Anders Wennersten wrote that the paid editing problem "is a privilege that only the biggest version can have"—the site is by some orders of magnitude smaller than the English Wikipedia (about 2% of the active users and fewer than 4% of the total edits; while the Swedish Wikipedia has a relatively high total article count of more than 1.6M articles, these are in large part due to the operations of an automated computer program). Wennersten said that as long as paid advocates play by the basic rules, they are key stakeholders in ensuring that the site continually improves in "value and quality", despite its small core of active editors. He related an anecdote about a publishing company that had contributed "excellent" articles on their affiliated authors. While they have to work with them to remove "fluff and promotion", they obtain valuable information for the area that was not previously covered.
So, too, does the Norwegian Wikipedia. Erlend Bjørtvedt added that a major discussion among the site's administrators concluded that a straight ban on paid editors was wholly impractical, as it would also ban editors who were working for public institutions. Edits from third parties paid to edit for a commercial entity and non-neutral editing for pay are frowned on, but the site attempts to judge editors on their actions, not affiliation. In fact, employees' editing their employers' articles "is not only tolerated, but quite common" on the site; according to Bjørtvedt, many of the administrators and bureaucrats who joined a debate at Oslo's Wikipedia Academy last month had participated in paid editing:
||During the discussion, it appeared that a large proportion of the admins and bureaucrats who joined the discussion, had edited the articles about their employers. Most were aware of the COI potential involved, but asserted being able to write objectively even about an employer.
In contrast, the English Wikipedia has had a tortuous relationship with paid advocacy and the related "conflict of interest" (COI) guideline. Some of the most prominent paid editors have been banned, such as Gregory Kohs, but three proposals that would have abolished or severely limited paid advocacy were voted down. An entire section on the COI guideline is devoted to financial issues, yet some advocates have found that they can thrive—if they are careful. Jimmy Wales has championed a "bright line" rule where advocates would not be able to edit articles directly, but few support it. McDevitt-Parks is free to edit in his role, but those suspected of advocacy are vigorously criticized.
- Public Domain Day: A user on the Wikimedia Commons has gone through and collected all of the images on the site that have entered the public domain as a result of the new year. In a similar vein, Duke University has published a list of what could have entered the public domain this year had the US not altered its copyright laws in the late 1970s.
- Copyright consultation: The European Union is conducting a public review of its copyright rules, and a Wikimedia-centered response is currently in draft form on Meta.
- Open Access Metadata: The National Information Standards Organization has published a set of recommendations on how to indicate usage rights on scholarly publications, including a new set of metadata tags. The institution is accepting comments on their draft until 4 February, and the Open Access WikiProject has prepared its own thoughts on how to do so on Wikipedia. The Signpost published an op-ed on metadata last July.
- English Wikipedia
- On-wiki writing contests: Sarah Stierch, formerly of the WMF's Program Evaluation and Design Team, released a new program evaluation about on-wiki writing contests. It reports that on-wiki writing contests are successful at meeting their goal of improving the quality of English Wikipedia articles and in retaining experienced editors.