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A Wikistream of real time edits, a call for COI reform, and cracks in the ivory tower of knowledge

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By Skomorokh and Tarheel95

A truce in sight on COI?

In a post for social media professionals' review Socialfresh, marketer David King set forth a case for "Why Wikipedia Needs Marketers". Beginning from the observation that both numbers of new and active contributors are flagging while articles continue to grow in size and number, King pitched the idea that the encyclopaedia needs the content curating skills of paid marketing professionals "with the right policies, guidance and expertise". "[V]andalism, bias, outdated information and blatant factual errors will run even more rampant" should current growth patterns prevail on the site, King proposed, arguing that marketers inducted into the ranks of encyclopaedians with proper understanding and appreciation of the site's goals and guidelines would be highly motivated and capable contributors to the struggle to sustain and improve quality of coverage.

Acknowledging the editing community's antipathy to marketers who have hitherto tended to ignore policy, legal and social norms of the collegial contribution of neutral encyclopaedic content in their persistent drives to introduce promotional material on their clients' behalf, King asserted that his colleagues had lost the good faith that the project's policies had proffered to them, that they had never deserved it, and yet that it was in the interests of both the editing community and marketers that they earn this faith back. Citing the exorbitant costs of editorial combat between gatekeepers and marketers, and the latter's interpretation of the nuanced Conflict of interest policy as an all-out ban, King sought to establish that "Wikipedia doesn’t have anything against marketers, just against marketing content". His plea to marketing professionals intent on editing was to "Be humble, learn, listen and follow the rules. Take your time. Invest in Wikipedia. Earn our good faith back." To Wikipedians, his call for truce invoked the metaphor of prohibition of widely practiced activities, arguing that Wikipedians, like sensible regulators elsewhere, must come to realise that outlawing such behaviour is countereffective, and that the solution lies in tolerance, oversight and policing of it. He proposed as potential ideas to embrace certification schemes, conduct accords, and even a donations-for-participation program. Legions of frustrated and antagonistic outsiders under the status quo, he imagined marketers as a "most knowledgeable and motivated group of contributors" in this brave new world.

The Signpost asked King to elaborate on his proposal to the perhaps yet-wary volunteers of the editing community:

Today Wikipedia's most ethical COI contributors are literally fearful of Wikipedia, handcuffed by their legal department, scared of what the community might do. Maybe they should be. Meanwhile, our worst contributors are often rewarded with salvaged advert. On Wikipedia the system for COI appears to work, yet offline I see another story.

I see multi-billion dollar companies with some of the most ethical business practices in the world and a well-respected product getting slammed on Wikipedia by opinionated garbage and speculation written by a customer blowing steam four years ago. I see an angry ex-employee writing "next in line for chapter 11" on the article of a profitable multi-billion dollar company that's doing just fine. That fictional chapter 11 statement stayed up for weeks, was un-addressed by the community and read by thousands. I see a place where controversy and criticisms are well-covered, but stories of growth, culture, leadership and success are not. Where Apple and Google get quality articles, but other notable organizations are victimized by a community that breaks the rules for neutrality, verification and encyclopedic tone. A place where few notable organizations have the quality full-length article they deserve and the party most motivated to write it is afraid. Where community members with a negative COI against the organization are effective, but positive COIs are not.

COI contributors introduce bias, but I'm also concerned of the bias without them. Some of our most knowledgeable and motivated contributors are COIs. Does that mean we open the doors wide? Absolutely not. COIs are like political lobbyists. We're needed but our participation needs to be a delicate and well regulated one. But through teamwork, education, awareness, process, a better ecosystem we could change the tides. We can get more ethical contributions and less advert. We can improve the quality, completeness and balance of articles while reducing the volume of issues on COI noticeboards.

Most COI contributions are unhelpful, frustrating, require policing and drag the community into angry, venom-spitting conversations. The system is designed to police those edits after the fact. How can we make those edits better in the first place? I have some ideas and I think Wikipedia can become a better, more accurate, balanced, updated Wikipedia that will retain more quality volunteer editors if we discussed it and came up with ways to reward positive COI, punish bad COI, get more of the good and less of the bad.

An illustration of this theme came this week in Britain, with an exposé of London lobbyists Bell Pottinger Group by The Independent. The investigation revealed that among the 'dark arts' of the firm – one of the United Kingdom's largest lobbying outfits – was clandestinely sanitising negative coverage of clients in Wikipedia. Reporters from the newspaper posing as representatives of the reviled Uzbekistani regime succeeded in capturing on video executives of the firm describing the online reputation management services that they were willing to provide for the nation's president, Islam Karimov. Whether the episode lends weight to King's assertion that underhanded public relations operatives are thriving while their ethical colleagues are punished, or confirmation of the wisdom of a firm line on prohibiting interested contributions of any kind, remains an unanswered question.

Journals, archives and a new age of engagement

Cambridge University Press took a bold step towards opening up academic journals to public access this week as they announced a scheme to rent access to individual articles for as little as £3.99/$5.99/€4.49, Ars Technica reported. Although this access is to be restricted to one viewing session with no facility to save, copy from or print an article, it represents an 86% decrease in the cost of accessing journal articles for laymen without university or library affiliations. The Chronicle of Higher Education's Wired Campus blog elaborated on the publisher's motivations, which were principally concerned with improving the dismal 0.01% conversion rate of views from unaffiliated researchers to pay-per-view downloaders. Such viewers accounted for 20%, or 12 million hits, of pageviews for journal article abstracts on the publisher's Cambridge Journals Online site in 2010.

In another development that will warm the hearts of Wikipedia's article writers, BBC News showcased the launch of the British Newspaper Archive, an ambitious new initiative from the British Library in partnership with brightsolid to digitise for the online perusal of its readers its vast store of newspapers, periodicals and journals. Over one million pages of pre-20th-century publications are already available, with that number expected to rise to 40 million in the next ten years as the archive hopes to make available on the internet "every single newspaper, periodical and journal ever printed".

Global Wikipedia activity streamed in real time

Vandalism fighters and casual readers alike have relied on Wikipedia's recent changes feed to give them a general idea of all the encyclopaedia's edits. However, there are several drawbacks to this method, most notably the need to refresh the page to display new information. Enter Wikistream, an external service streaming every single Wikipedia edit in real time, heralded this week as an "absolutely amazing" tool by The Next Web. Including changes to every Wikipedia project, the stream is often too busy for a viewer to note a single edit. The stream is filterable, able to display edits from a single project, or a certain namespace on said project. The website supports a "pause" function, accessible by pressing 'P' on the keyboard, for users who feel overwhelmed by the content. The development was also noted by Geeky Gadgets and Ubergizmo.

In brief

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If COI editors truly want to have unbiased info added to particular articles, there is a very easy way to do it: on their own sites they can write whatever they want, license it CC-BY 3.0 and then leave a note on the Wikipedia article page, or at articles for creation. To the extent that the material is really informative, unbiased, and sourced it will quickly be added to the Wikipedia article. I'd guess many COIs don't use this method simply because they don't know about it, but others don't use it because they want to have the final say on what can be added. Of course, Wikipedians will not allow COIs to have the final say, which is how it should be. Smallbones (talk) 18:53, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Even if they used this method, it would still need to be backed up by reliable and independent secondary sources. But there are dangers in using this method; they can't control it if it contains material not meant to seen or controversial and damaging put in by oversight, and then it spreads like wildfire, and because of the license, they can't stop it. Phearson (talk) 20:52, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
It's definitely not a method for companies that want to hide anything, or for companies that want to control how information is spun. But if they really want to contribute to Wikipedia, they MUST leave those ideas behind. If they do want to contribute real sourced unspun information, they can use this method and we should welcome them. Smallbones (talk) 23:06, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Creating free content and offering it to Wikipedia makes sense. I just have a hard time seeing it actually happen in practice, though I don't have any particular reason why it shouldn't. Many marketers are utterly unable to write in encyclopedic tone, but they could leave a list of references on the Talk page for other writers to use. I often have to tell clients to write their own controversy section or leave the pre-existing one untouched and that's really hard for them. I think what is often overlooked is marketers don't know anything about the rules. 3 years in and I'm still learning them all the time. What we think is common sense is a foreign language to our types.King4057 (talk) 20:06, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
What's a foreign language to them is a foreign language to us and vice versa. But I can change the tone of a text, edit out the BS, review sources, etc. a lot more easily than I can write something from scratch. If there are just a few references given, it might take a couple hours to write a page. If there is just a single page of text without a free licenses, it might take an hour to rewrite it in my own words while avoiding close paraphrasing and plagiarism in general. If there is a page of text with a free license (and I agree with the content), it might only take 15 minutes to remove the buzz words, ad-speak, and general BS. Which would any rational writer prefer?
Why don't marketers put up the material on their websites with a free license if they want it on Wikipedia?
          • a) They don't know about this method - Solution: you tell them and earn your money!
          • b) They are not creative enough and are afraid of taking risks. Whose problem is that?
          • c) They don't trust Wikipedia. Definitely their problem, not mine!
Do feel free to drop a line on my user page with a link to freely licensed corporate material, as long as they want an independent rewrite according to my standards.
All the best, Smallbones (talk) 21:42, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I think if I told a corporation to put freely licensed content on their corporate website, they might laugh at me. The web team would tell me not to touch it, legal would be afraid it would imply other content is free, the whole situation violates the web site's user agreement and marketing would say their hands are tied. That's how Wikipedia works, but not how businesses work and it's unrealistic to expect them to change for Wikipedia. But couldn't the same process take place on Wikipedia? We could write a draft on Wikipedia and offer it to the community for consideration before it goes live. I will take you up on your offer to review and re-write as you see fit freely licensed materials that are written on Wikipedia, but I couldn't see there ever being corporate materials that are even remotely appropriate. I tell marketers a lot of things about Wikipedia - most often for free - but I'm just one guy who. I've only reached .01% of them. I like seeing this conversation though. I will be taking you up on your offer in a month or two. Best regards. King4057 (talk) 12:53, 9 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
A couple of problems. Corporations won't put up freely licensed material on their own websites. They'll laugh at you. But they want to put up freely licensed material on Wikipedia without any way of confirming that they actually wrote it, and taking no responsibility for it. They should laugh at themselves. If they can't figure out a way to specify "This page is licensed CC-BY 3.0", maybe they could set up their own freely licensed on-line encyclopedia, say Bizopedia, "the encyclopedia where any business can write about itself." Of course nobody would read it because it would not be independently edited and would be transparently self-serving, but Wikipedia editors could use the material as we see fit.
If you want to create new articles, try sending them to Articles for Creation. They'll probably be skeptical, and rightly so. If you want to put material in a sandbox here, I don't think most people here would object (until that privilege is abused), but it would be clumsy. If the sandbox said "xxx xxxx xx" I wouldn't be able to write that unless I was completely convinced it was true and backed up by references that I've seen. But if it was on the corporate website and I was convinced that it was likely to be true, I could write "According to the corporate website "xxx xxxx xx'." I'm not offering to rewrite corporate material that first appears on Wikipedia (In any case anybody can do that without any agreement, change in policy or procedures, etc.) I am saying that, where I feel it is appropriate, I will add and edit freely licensed material that appears on corporate websites, and properly credit it in line with the license (probably in the edit summary and on the talk page). That does not violate any policy or guideline and I don't need anybody's permission to do that.
You say "it's unrealistic to expect them (businesses) to change for Wikipedia." I say that Wikipedia has made very clear that it doesn't want certain types of corporate material, but it's very willing to work, on its own terms, with freely licensed corporate material. It's unrealistic to expect Wikipedia to change this for the benefit of corporations, who are free to pay for advertising elsewhere. Smallbones (talk) 14:09, 9 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Small, unfortunately I cannot change the world for anyone here. I can't make businesses more ethical, less greedy or make us less of a litigious society. I do think I can play some small role in making Wikipedia more balanced, complete and happy. The only purpose a corporation would create well-verified, neutral, encyclopedic content for under a free creative commons license would be Wikipedia. Large businesses - that I have no control over - will not license their website copy under a creative commons license and very little of their copy is appropriate for Wikipedia. My whole call to action is that through civil discourse and better collaboration and process, we can make Wikipedia a better encyclopedia. Lobbying organizations to license more content under a free license may be a good cause, but I'm not sure it would make sense for Wikipedia - as a project - to try to make this happen for the sake of making improvements to COI. You bring up issues like taking responsibility for their contributions and advert, which are the same issues I'm suggesting we improve. I don't have a particular opinion on whether a company should or shouldn't license their corporate website this way, I just don't have the reasonable ability to execute on it. If the only solution a COI contributor is presented with is one they're unable to do, what do you think will be their course of action? Anonymous editing that leads salvaged advert? Still, maybe it's part of the solution. I certainly acknowledge your point of view and see where you're coming from. Like I said, I'm unable to execute on your suggestion, even if I tried with all my heart. King4057 (talk) 00:06, 10 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I wish that approach would work, Smallbones. Or even the mostly-forgotten suggestion that individuals with a conflict of interest limit themselves to the talk pages. The problem is that last step: getting information that is not problematic but provided by a biassed party into the article itself. (As an example, let's take the case of a hypothetical PR flack for the housing industry simply wants to update the latest figures for housing starts in the US; how should she/he proceed if there are no active editors involved with articles on the US construction industry?) There are over three million articles in Wikipedia, & depending on how you count them between 400 and four thousand active editors; unless every active editor actively monitors & participates in several thousand pages, articles will be overlooked & information never added. Unless a workable modus vivendi is established, Wikipedians will continue to consider everyone in that category -- both the good & bad -- as tendentious editors leading to frustration on both sides & worse articles all around. -- llywrch (talk) 18:07, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
re:Hypothetical example - there's a link at Housing starts (bottom of page) that gives the latest figures and goes back to Jan. 1959. We're actually better than you think. But if the point is "We want to put in info to articles, we want to judge what's unbiased, and we want it presented to a large audience NOW," then the answer is to pay for advertising somewhere else. If you want me to include material that I judge to be unbiased and well sourced, please post it on your own website with a CC-BY 3.0 license clearly visible, and place a link on the article talk page. You may also put a link on my talk page. Then I'll make an independent judgement at my own pace. After all, you are not paying me to put up the info - and that's the whole point of Wikipedia isn't it. independent, non-commercial, judgement? Smallbones (talk) 21:19, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
No, my point was not that. My point is that potential contributors do not fall into simple, clean categories: not every contributor with an identifiable conflict of interest will have the attitude you are expecting. If you make that assumption, then the inevitable conclusion is that experts should not contribute in the fields of their expertise because they will always be biassed. Since you responded to my hypothetical example by looking at the trees & not the forest, let me offer you a very specific & existing one: the most recent population statistics for Ethiopia. They exist online in pdf format. However, unless someone takes the time to extract the information & add it to Wikipedia, this information is not getting into Wikipedia. (I was working on this, but for reasons I won't bore anyone with, I've left off that work & may never get back to it.) Now by your thinking, no employee of the Ethiopian government should attempt to add this material to the relevant Wikipedia articles due to conflict of interest. Your words -- "If you want me to include material that I judge to be unbiased and well sourced, please post it on your own website with a CC-BY 3.0 license clearly visible, and place a link on the article talk page." There are many similar cases where flexibility will benefit Wikipedia, & not a simplisitic application of rules. A useful reference work does not result from a process which designed to have only a binary result. -- llywrch (talk) 17:44, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
My point was about marketers, advertising people, PR flacks (your example), and lawyers representing clients - which is a slightly larger group than was discussed in the article. I think my advice is great for them. BTW, this is not my original idea - Jimbo has suggested it for a long time now. Unfortunately, I've never seen anybody take up that advice, which makes me wonder about the crocodile tears by the marketer in the article.
As far as government employees, university profs (writing about their area of expertise or their university), non-profit-employees (or volunteers) or experts in general, I kinda agree with you. The COI rules and their application are a bit more lenient for them, but they are also fairly vague. I'd love to see this area cleaned up in the rules. But for marketers - please just give me the info in a form I can use, and don't expect me to use it in exactly the way you want it to be spun. Smallbones (talk) 19:03, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

"Global Eduction Programme?" Don't you mean Global 'Education Programme? Otherwise, keep up the good work! Ben (Major Bloodnok) (talk) 21:00, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

King mentions "multi-billion dollar companies with some of the most ethical business practices in the world" which is ridiculous. There are no multi-billion dollar companies with ethical business practices. If they had ethical business practices they wouldn't be multi-billion dollar companies, they'd be non-profit charities. Angr (talk) 21:33, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

I don't think we, as a project, should assume that all businesses are necessarily unethical. Maybe just all the businesses that you've dealt with? I don't think everybody should work for non-profits - who would be left to donate the money needed to pay their salaries? Smallbones (talk) 23:06, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
I didn't say everyone should work for non-profits. I don't work for one myself. But I'm under no illusions as to the ethicalness of my company's business practices. Like every other for-profit company, their goal is to make a profit by any means necessary. Angr (talk) 18:01, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]
There are many, many unethical businesses and unfortunately I agree that "the system" (economics, politics, etc.) favors those who break the law rather than follow it. That doesn't mean Wikipedia needs to do the same by creating a system that salvages advert while scaring off those who follow the rules.King4057 (talk) 20:06, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

With all respect to David King, he's living in a very different world to that most Wikipedia editors inhabit. The whole concept of marketers having a valuable role in spreading the 'truth' about their clients is pretty obviously antithetical to how Wikipedia works and highly unlikely to reflect the views of most of Wikipedia's millions of non-editing readers. It's also not accepted by reputable news media (though, of course, lots of corporate and government media releases and the like end up being recycled as 'news' stories). Nick-D (talk) 09:53, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

The COI guideline is just that: a guideline. It's not an official policy. Like the article says, it's "nuanced", and was meant to be when set up that way, five years ago. What is not that helpful is when editors here set out to "enforce" what is not a policy, by any methods that are not recourse to bringing the article's content in line with content policy. Charles Matthews (talk) 12:52, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

I suspect King is perhaps talking about how the COI policy gets wound up with the username policy. I see, from the vantage point of enforcing the latter, a fair amount of situations where someone with a username which clearly indicates an interest in the subject of an article edits that article, but in a way that would be entirely commendable if it were done by someone without the name conflict. Meanwhile, the least scrupulous of spammers know to use IPs or innocuously-named accounts to get their stuff up and keep it up (I'm told by one of our more devout inclusionists that the amount of spammy articles about non-notable companies that have just been sitting there for years far dwarfs the uncited-BLP problem as a blot on our credibility). He's right that we are punishing ethical PR and marketing people who want to be upfront about who they are and what they're doing (of course, we did create the "Mark at Alcoa" exception for that purpose). Daniel Case (talk) 15:53, 7 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

  • If someone were to upload such as ‘’Mr Bigshot, the CEO of such-and-such company wears pink ladies underwear’’ to an article in Wikipedia, or write such in a newspaper article, it is likely that PR flack for said company would be upset (get their knickers in a knot?) and want to have it changed by any means possible. But really, it is just the case that ignorant consumers who are unable to think for themselves and take every written word as if it is a confirmed fact are the norm, that is the social mileu in which we are through conditioning immersed.

If the reputation of a billion dollar company is in such a fragile state that they are afraid of any tiny piece of misinformation, pity them. We all live in a world of opinionated gossip and rumour, and whilst Wikipedians are attempting with compassion to separate factual and useful information from the ocean of misinformation in which we daily drown, there is no garanteed method of eliminating misinformation completely from the universe, just as there is no cast-iron garantee possible that one won’t get run over by a bus while crossing the road, sorry about that.

The most productive attitude to be adopted whether you are working for some monolithic monopoly or not, IMO is to develop broad shoulders and a thick skin, and if someone criticises your beloved company, or your favourite movie star or whatever, just let it slide and ignore it . And let the truth speak for itself, the truth does not need flunkeys for assistance, the truth is that which will in the long run triumph, misinformation is that which through it’s own vulnerabilities will in the end fail. And even while eliminating lies as compassionately as possible, one might feel pity for lies, for lies are only us ourselves when we are at the mercy of our own weaknesses.

After all, when the boot is on the other foot, billion dollar companies rely exactly on the gullibility of the general public to be taken in by the drivel which floods the airwaves and is known as advertising. And, it should be blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever had the opportunity to employ the marvellous brain that they were supplied with at birth, that all opinions, such as have been elucidated herewith for instance, are just that, opinions, as irritating as that may be, there could be no truth at all if there were not fallible human beings to express. NewbyG ( talk) 16:47, 8 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]

British Newspaper Archive

The above story led me to check out the British Newspaper Archive. No mention was made in the story about the high fee for looking at any of the archived newspapers: £6.95 GBP for 2 days, and far more for long term access. This is not very attractive pricing for volunteer editors of Wikipedia, though it might be good news for academic researchers with grants or other searchers with site licenses. Edison (talk) 21:23, 6 December 2011 (UTC)[reply]


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