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Paid editing is fairly common on Wikimedia wikis. It takes various forms, with a few widely accepted and a few incredibly controversial.
Types of paid editing
Archiving, organizing, and digitizing knowledge
Work to digitize, publish, and freely license knowledge that has already been published elsewhere is strongly encouraged. This is regularly done by professionals in their capacity as archivists or publishers. They may or may not work with Wikimedians outside their organization in publishing on-wiki in a helpful, clearly sourced, and transparent fashion. There may be pushback against publication that happens too quickly or too messily for wiki-based curation (cf. Commons trying to process the British Library's 2013 release of 1M images), but not because any of the contributors are paid.
The closer a contribution is to sharing a primary source document or media file, the more irrelevant conflicts of interest such as payment are. (Though never wholly irrelevant: an archivist strongly motivated to push a particular agenda can forge or censor originals, for instance.)
There are many reasons to linkspam Wikimedia sites. Some have nothing to do with being paid. Many drives to add external links are helpful in part. Many are also unhelpful in part, or need to be rethought in light of how readers use the sites.
A common borderline case is an archive which possesses the originals of thousands of significant works. They have structured metadata and other information about those works, and where the canonical listing of the latest news about them, may be found. While in theory such a link should always be welcome somewhere on any related commons, wikisource, or wikipedia page, there are many ways to attempt to add such links that frustrate other editors or even decrease the utility of the page in question.
Some large archives (such as the Dutch Tropenmuseum) have as their goal the global awareness of their collections, and are happy to invest the time of their staff in posting those materials to Commons, for use as the project sees fit. Others have as the primary goal driving traffic to their existing site, and try to add links in inappropriately prominent places, or to add links to even unhelpful target pages.
The problem here is not necessarily that the contributor is paid, but that they are being spurred on by an explicit external goal other than improving the pages they are editing. The same problem can be seen in anyone who tries to spam links to a site they love (whether it is a fansite or a site they built and love, or a site that pays them).
Creating new summaries and material
Paid editing to improve the freely licensed information available about a topic may be welcome or unwelcome.
For educational or charitable purpose
- Editing to improve the educational material available to learn about a topic - from science to society to art.
- Editing as part of a non-profit organization, to improve material available about topics of interest to that non-profit.
- Editing to promote the work and ideas of a current organization, or a product or company or band that is currently trying to make a name for itself.
This is where most requests for articles, and some paid editing, falls.
Everything from fan-groups that want their favorite topics included, to people who want to write about an individual or concept that they care about. Often this sort of interest comes from people who care about or are related to the topic in question. Sometimes they are willing to pay a bit for someone else to write up the topic for broader consumption; or to help synthesize non-public documents into a public, freely licensed summary.
Organizations often feel this way about some of their own projects or publications. So do creators. Where these projects or creative works have not yet become well-known, this blurs the line between 'inclusion in the public record' and 'overemphasis of significance in the public record'. This is related to the tension between an informative summary and a puff piece. In areas where notability isn't an issue (or isn't a requirement), inclusion is usually appropriate, the question is simply how and where.
For promotion and to "set the record straight"
This is where most of the conflict, and most advocacy, falls.
- Wikimedia projects should not be used as a way to generate notability and fame for a person, organization, product or company that is trying to make a name for itself.
- Nor should they be used to set the record straight about a controversial conflict, lawsuit, or academic argument.
Some of our most basic policies, from NPOV to NOR, are extensions of this idea.
Thanks to our popularity and universality, we are increasingly turned to as a source of fame, or a mechanism for record-correcting. Puff pieces for individuals or organizations are in high demand. Luckily, in practice if not in theory, small groups of encyclopedist peers are able to counter much of this bias on the projects. Puff pieces in particular can be detected by their tone and language.
However this ad-hoc review is not enough to counter the largest sources of bias in the written record: those driven by ideology or well-funded teams. This includes paid advocacy: being paid to keep a certain point of view in an article.
Limiting coordinated bias
Coordinated, funded sources of bias are difficult to counter. They can generate biased sources (and fund reputable-seeming but POV publications). The same sources of bias can also motivate large numbers of contributions directly to the projects. This poses challenges to accurately reflecting the world's knowledge.
- Coordinated sources of bias
- Campaigns to reframe fact and history, sometimes sponsored by identity groups, or a beneficiary of a rewrite
- Efforts to discredit a person or organization, sometimes sponsored by opponents
- Efforts to overcredit a person or organization, often sponsored by them or their beneficiaries
- Ways to counter this bias
1. Identify topics and themes that are particularly vulnerable
- Creating categories for living people (and active organizations?), for hot-button issues
2. Identify related patterns of editing
- Creating guidelines for "criticism" sections, external links
3. Increase leverage of curators, decrease leverage of POV-pushers
- Design tools and support for curator review
- Limit tools and support for POV-pushing
This last point, designing defensive tools and limiting offensive tools, has a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of curation.
- Two common tools for POV-pushing
- Going to a community that agrees with your POV, and asking them to help.
- This is meat-puppeting, and is strongly discouraged. Tends to happen for controversial & subculture topics, AfDs.
- Offering to pay people to make edits for your POV.
- This is paid advocacy, and is strongly discouraged. Tends to happen for individual pages on living people and modern companies.
Both of these are effective failure modes of current models of peer-review and editing. As a result, extra efforts are made to limit them. Even the appearance of recruiting puppets or paid advocates is discouraged.
Warning signs include a single source or party or funder deciding what 'neutrality' or balance looks like; and by reward schemes that depend on keeping changes in an article over time, over expected opposition.
Topics that are broadly educational (long-standing knowledge about the physical, theoretical, or abstract world; history, discovery and society) have little overlap with topics that are common targets of coordinated bias (untested new/fringe science and inventions, modern companies and biographies, current-day politics and disputes).
Each topic could have an associated measure of its vulnerability to bias.
- Degree of verifiability of information about it
- Likelihood that the subject, or those with a vested interest, would want to commission their own version of the article
- Existence of PR teams or others whose job it is to modify such articles if possible (tied to the size/wealth of the subject)
Most problems with "paid editing" are problems with edits to high-vulnerability topics.
When doing something that is borderline problematic, editors are advised to be transparent about what they are doing and why: particularly regarding any funders or employers who have commissioned or required a set of edits.
Announcing conflicts allows for periodic review by other editors. This does mean edits are given a type of extra scrutiny; it is one of hundreds of risk factors for unintended bias, and reviewers who care about that particular that reviewers who care about that particular flavor of bias can use as a guide. However this attention can be used to good advantage. Those who handle transparency well are some of the best editors of all.
Not announcing conflicts may reduce third-party review in the short term, and when making controversial edits this may seem like a good idea. However it brings edits and judgement into question once discovered, and in extreme cases can lead to deletion/reversion of otherwise passable articles.
Setting a good example
Anyone who represents one of the major parts of the Wikimedia movement is expected to set a good example for others. Both fellow editors, and the rest of the world who have only a passing understanding of the projects, look to those people as representative of the spirit of the projects.
This applies to administrators on major projects, staff and governing members of the WMF and other movement entities, Wikipedia ambassadors and editors-in-residence, and others in positions of respect. They should be more careful than the casual editor or user of the projects, and go beyond the minimum requirements of transparency, consideration, and quality in their work.