Monday, 7 May 2007

Time for a rethink on conflict of interest

I've been thinking lately that we need to reshape our approach to the conflict of interest guideline, which is about people who have a conflict between their own interests and the interests of Wikipedia, whether that be a financial interest (eg, people paid to edit), a personal interest (eg, people writing about themselves) or some other interest.

I'll identify some current issues with the guideline, and some ways in which I think it can be improved. But first, a little bit about the history of the guideline.

The page began in May 2004 under a different title, "vanity guidelines". It focused on articles created by people very close to the subject of the article - usually autobiographies or articles about relatives or companies related to the person. Interestingly, the oldest version of the page contained the advice that "vanity" articles should not be deleted simply because they may have been written by someone very close to the subject, but because of the problems that they almost invariably have: a lack of neutral point of view, the inclusion of much non-encyclopaedic content and so forth.

The page has always been related to the autobiography guideline (which has a heritage back to July 2003) though they never merged. The guidelines were gradually developed over time (becoming increasingly wordy, naturally); though they always had a focus on the creation of new articles, and how editors ought to approach those, it eventually moved to cover topics such as citing yourself - mainly addressing the issue of academics citing scholarly material authored by themselves.

In October 2006 the vanity guidelines were renamed as the conflict of interest guideline - mainly to avoid the disparaging term "vanity" but also to emphasise that the guideline wasn't just addressing people writing about themselves, but people writing about any subject that they were too close to. The need for a rewrite was declared, and by the end of the month it had more or less taken on its present form, although there have been many more changes since then.

The development of the guideline has inevitably been bound up with particular conflicts, especially relating to MyWikiBiz, aswell as several prominent arbitration cases. It has evolved from focusing on writing about one's self to writing in a much more varied range of situations. In doing so it has also changed from being essentially a page offering advice to a page offering imperatives, even though that is not always its intention. I'm particularly concerned at recent trends which seem to be moving in the direction of penalising users simply for being in a position of conflict of interest, as opposed to producing poor content as a result of their conflict.

The problems that we ought to be addressing are not that someone is editing with a conflict of interest, but that someone is producing content which is not neutral, or is unverified, or is original research. The problem is with the content that is actually produced. Granted, a person with a conflict of interest is probably more likely to produce problematic content than a person without a conflict, but that doesn't mean that the person always will (nor that the person without never will).

To put it another way, the existence of a conflict of interest may explain why someone is producing problematic content, but it is not the problem in its own right. The problem is the actual content someone produces.

I realise that this is easy to say, but hard to reconcile with practical reality. At this time I think the community needs to resolve the tension arising from the question of whether we desire people with conflicts of interest to continue to edit, or whether we would prefer that they not edit at all. Either approach has its downsides; as Charles Matthews identifies, an approach of discouragement raises issues of a conflict with the necessity of assuming good faith, but a more relaxed approach risks achieving nothing more than restating the content policies.

My preferred approach would be to discourage people with conflicts from editing as much as possible, but at the same time, give them as great an opportunity to participate through other means as is practicable. If editing material about which one has a conflict of interest is taken away as a socially acceptable option, it needs to be substituted for something else.

In a recent completely new draft of the guideline, I identified the use of talk pages, requests for comment and the OTRS system as such avenues. Hopefully the community will be able to identify a much better range of methods than this. Ideally they should involve mediating content through the community and should have a low barrier to entry.

As a final point for now, I think we also need to be more welcoming and less suspicious of people with conflicts of interest, on the proviso that at the same time we strongly discourage them from editing. We need to create an environment where disclosing a conflict and working with other editors to produce valuable content is a truly viable option for people with conflicts. A heavy-handed approach will force people underground in attempts to sneak content in, and that can only be counter-productive.

I have probably raised more questions than I have answered here. Hopefully this will get people interested in developing a more robust and well-rounded approach to conflict of interest.


GerardM said...

Your notion that someone who gets paid to work on articles is as a consequence biased is a fallacy. It also proves how much this "policy" does not comply with the primary policy of "assume good faith".

When an organisation wants to pay for encyclopaedic content, it is dependent on what the requirements are that may make an resulting articles problematic. When a specialist is hired to write the about topics in his/her speciality it should means that the quality of the Wikipedia goes up.

When a specialist is paid to work on well written articles, these articles qualify as quality content. As long as it is accepted that other people edit these same articles there is no difference between this any other creative activity.

Based on what the paying organisation aims to achieve, there may be a conflict of interest. It is for this reason relevant that there is openness to the Wikimedia Foundation. Leaving it to all editors will find you plenty people of bad faith.

Assuming bad faith is not the Wiki way.


tgr said...

Punishing conflicts of interest was a horrible idea from the beginning. It essentially means that you will punish people for being honest (as most of the time there is no way to tell apart voluntary and paid povpushers). Disclosing your conflicts of interest is something that should be encouraged, not punished by banning.

Besides, the scope of the guideline is arbitrary at best. Why is a republican voter editing political articles less of a conflict then a Microsoft employee editing articles about web technologies?

Gregory Kohs said...

Thank you for this informative post, especially seeing that it generated a couple of independent comments that tend to support what MyWikiBiz was trying to do from the start -- write good, encyclopedic content, out in the bright disinfecting sunlight of full disclosure. Of course, these articles could then be edited mercilessly by the volunteer community, and any payor would have to have known that was an assumed risk.

Instead, Jimbo went a bit nuts in October, and a vocal cabal of admins declared that "the community" had decided to close paid editing as any sort of option. (Yet, the Reward Board stands, doesn't it?)

If anything, Wikipedia is inconsistent.

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