Who hires paid editors to write articles about themselves or their businesses? Who dispenses with paid editors and just writes articles about themselves as conflict-of-interest (COI) editors? What difference do these editors make to our readers? The easiest way to get answers to these questions is just to read the news and look for people who have been caught promoting themselves.
Sapan Desai, a vascular surgeon, had a terrible year. Last fall he was sued for medical malpractice three times, and in February he and his employer parted ways - though his former employer won’t say why. Just when things started to look much better, his life really went downhill. His coauthors and he looked like they scored magnificently, getting scientific papers on COVID-19 accepted at two very prestigious medical journals, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. All of these papers were based on an unbelievably large dataset provided by Desai’s own company Surgisphere. But soon The Guardian, The Scientist, and many other news sources began questioning the reliability of the dataset. The two accepted papers were both withdrawn in one of the biggest scientific scandals in years. One theory is that the dataset was just made up out of thin air.
The Guardian reported that an English Wikipedia article about Desai had been deleted in 2010. The deletion debate centered on puffery and unbelievable claims apparently written by Desai himself. Note that an investigation about paid or COI editors conducted purely on Wikipedia can almost never completely prove the identity of an editor; for example an editor can impersonate another (a "Joe job") in an attempt to embarrass them.
The Wikipedia article on Desai was begun on January 20, 2007 by User:OverlordvI, a single purpose account who knew many details of Desai’s life, such as the name of the consulting firm Desai founded in high school, the name of his family’s private charity, his SAT score (a perfect 1600), all three of the degrees he earned at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School and related campuses, the 16 medical textbooks that he had written or co-written and was selling on Amazon, and that he had earned a law degree (JD) – all by age 27 – just as he was starting his medical residency at Duke University.
Some of this unbelievable history checks out. He was selling textbooks on Amazon, and he did earn three degrees (BS, MD, PhD) from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Other details could likely only be confirmed by Desai himself or by his family. There is no evidence that he was ever a lawyer or earned a JD, not even in his 43 page resume now posted online.
A new user named User:Surgisphere began editing in 2008, the same year a company of the same name, owned by Desai, was founded. The article on Desai was deleted on July 27, 2010 following a detailed nomination by User:Crusio.
Did the Wikipedia article on Desai do any actual harm to our readers? We should not blame all of the extensive harm caused by Desai’s recent publishing misadventures on the Wikipedia article. But we did give Desai’s early publishing career a boost, if only in advertising his 16 textbooks. We likely caused harm to those medical students who bought those texts, and perhaps to their future patients. Allowing this type of article to exist on Wikipedia for over two years certainly diminishes our reputation as a reliable source.
A second possible COI/paid editing situation this month was published online in Efinancecareers in the story ‘’Andrea Orcel and the importance of having a positive Wikipedia page’’. The story’s author makes all the proper disclaimers that the actual identities of the Wikipedia editor involved cannot be fully identified. Andrea Orcel is a highly respected businessman who has been called the “Ronaldo of investment banking” according to his Wikipedia article, which is corroborated by at least one person. Orcel was also apparently offered the CEO position at Santander Bank, one of Europe's largest commercial banks. But the offer was withdrawn, or the deal couldn’t be completed, and Orcel is now suing Santander for 120 million euros.
The online story reports that User:MAaR11Aa 2019, whose 29 edits on Wikipedia are all to the Andrea Orcel article, has claimed twice in edit comments that “we are restructuring Andrea's Wikipedia profile to make it simpler and more organized. it is at the request of Mr Orcel.” (Both on April 15, 2020)
The Orcel article was created by User:Gallic Village in September 2018 and expanded by User:One Factor. Both of these accounts were indefinitely blocked as sock puppets of DonSpencer1 and, based on the glowing additions made, were likely paid editors. was recently unblocked and has started editing the Orcel article under that username. Taken together the users Gallic Village, One Factor, DonSpencer1, and MAaR11Aa have accounted for roughly 87% of all edits to the article and 94% of the added text.
Does this type of editing where the rich and famous appear to hire others to write a glowing article hurt anybody? It certainly hurts Wikipedia's reputation for fairness, accuracy and reliability.