Wikipedia:Die Grenzen der Bezahlung/6 weeks

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The Acceptable Limits of Professional Writing on Wikipedia. Six weeks.

This is an abridged version of the German text, “Wikipedia:Die Grenzen der Bezahlung/6 Wochen”. (The Acceptable Limits of Professional Writing on Wikipedia. Six weeks.

Just over a month has passed since I published an article in “Wikipedia:Kurier”, asking Wikipedians to contribute to the debate about paid content creation for Wikipedia. A lot has happened since then.

The project on the acceptable limits of professional writing was announced internally in Wikipedia on January 21, 2013. The discussion on the topic was particularly lively and productive in the first weeks after the announcement. While the first group of Wikipedians left the discussion a few days after it began, the discussion continued non-stop for a month, as more people heard about the topic. I will now attempt to summarize the discussion.

Additional material is also available from the Wiki project on dealing with professional writing. This material includes a list of the current applicable rules, a compilation of the discussions to date, documentation of cases and professional editors known to the public, as well as concrete suggestions on adapting the rules.

Current status[Bearbeiten]

Framework conditions[Bearbeiten]

The discussion about professional writing, also known as the “paid editing debate”, does not take place in a vacuum. Instead, it is based on a practice that has existed for years in German-language Wikipedia. The most important factor is the willingness on the part of external actors to pay for Wikipedia contents. In theory, European and German competition law severely restrict paid editing.

Practice to date: arbitrary tolerance[Bearbeiten]

We can sum up Wikipedia’s practice to date as one of arbitrary tolerance. The relevant rule on conflicts of interest does not prohibit paid editing. We are aware of several hundred accounts from a professional environment. These accounts are able to edit articles. “Pragmatic nerddom” seems to be the predominant interpretation of the rule in the discussions so far – in other words, no matter who edits, content is what counts. This can also be seen from the preliminary findings of an informal and non-representative survey which showed that a large majority is in favor of tolerating paid editing.

However, advertising and promotion have traditionally been interpreted broadly and extensively in Wikipedia’s criteria for speedy deletion. The rule on single-purpose accounts is occasionally used against Wikipedians who are clearly being paid. “Not being here to build an encyclopedia”, the universal reason for blocking an editor from the German Wikipedia, is also used for suspected promotional accounts. Several Wikipedians have said that they are deliberately unfriendly and discouraging in order to deter paid employees.

Current paid contributors[Bearbeiten]

Most professional contributors are temporary guests. Their aim is to have their material included as efficiently as possible within the rules. They are not interested in how Wikipedia works internally and have no time whatsoever for this. We can assume that every company is familiar with its own article and that employees from almost every company have already made minor editing changes in Wikipedia.

Only a few service providers focus on Wikipedia, but several communications agencies also manage Wikipedia articles. The prices charged and offered start at $5 and go up to high four-figure sums. In some cases, there is also a service package in which an editor or company writes articles for a monthly fee and then updates them on a regular basis.

A few Wikipedians have told me in public – but mainly in private – that there are occasional reciprocal business transactions. There is no established process for this type of transaction. They develop by chance and occur too rarely to form a type of income. However, the services exchanged can be worth several thousand euro, although this is rare.

Various initiatives are currently promoting official contributions by staff members from educational institutions, museums or archives, but this type of collaboration is still very rare.

Opportunities and problems[Bearbeiten]

Opportunities and problems can be divided into two aspects: on the one hand, professional editing has an impact on the quality of Wikipedia’s contents, while on the other hand, it changes the composition of the community.

The basic normative conflict: openness, anonymity, and voluntary work[Bearbeiten]

When it comes to paid content creation, there is a clash between two basic principles that are hard to reconcile. On the one hand, we have the principle of “everyone can join in”. The real existence of the person behind the account is of no importance whatsoever. This has been expressed in rules such as Wikipedia:Anonymity. The main page itself describes Wikipedia as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and does not stipulate that the authors should have any particular qualifications. Only content is important – it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Wikipedia expressly encourages the commercial re-use of its content and the realization of profit through its choice of licenses.

On the other hand, many Wikipedians regard themselves as volunteers who explicitly create an oasis of voluntary work. The Wikipedia:Beteiligen page states (in German) that “Wikipedia does not have a fixed, paid editorial team, but is instead produced by voluntary authors”. Wikipedia’s article on itself refers to “unpaid” editing. This self-image is promoted via PR activities and the fundraising campaigns.

Content aspects[Bearbeiten]

There has been bad experience with professional authors. They often do not get to grips with Wikipedia’s rules. And where they do manage to comply with the rules and edit in line with them, their amendments are usually inconspicuous and of little consequence in terms of content. Estimates vary widely on how serious the damage caused by this is: some people believe that contents have improved overall; others point out that the input control team is already out of its depth; some say that we have failed; and others express harsh criticism of the contributors.

However, it is also possible that paid editing will be needed in the long term in order to meet Wikipedia’s responsibility in the world or at least to allow us to further improve the already very high quality of many articles. Both internally and externally, some people believe that better protection of the personality rights of the subjects of the articles is needed. This provides an additional incentive to make use of paid editing.

Social aspects[Bearbeiten]

Not all Wikipedians agree that social aspects are important. They question whether it is actually possible to identify or define professional users as a group.

Some Wikipedians say that they do not want to work with paid editors, while others find the issue of payment irrelevant. It is certainly the case that volunteers and professionals collaborate in many areas outside Wikipedia, such as care of the elderly and conservation. However, the situation could become particularly tricky if professional users attempt to obtain influence over the community’s rules and procedures.

On the other hand, professional writers can also enhance user diversity, while professional courtesy can improve the rather notorious tone within Wikipedia.

Instruments[Bearbeiten]

Potential instruments and measures can be divided into those that are directed specifically at professional users and those that apply to all users, but are of particular relevance in the context in question.

Existing measures[Bearbeiten]

The most important existing tool against paid editing is deterrence. Not many of the people involved subscribe to the notion that Wikipedia is a part of social media and can be fed with content accordingly, nor is this a notion that Wikipedia wishes to encourage. There is a high level of mistrust both in the community and among the mass media and an article can quickly develop into a scandal. The formal and informal rules are cryptic and contradictory. The interface is not very intuitive for today’s internet users. Although professional writing is permitted in principle, it takes place in a technically and socially discouraging environment.

The most important aspect of dealing with paid editing is the day-to-day work and support provided by Wikipedians in various fields including recent changes control, the support team, and the mentoring program. Wikipedia has been confronted with attempts to manipulate content for many years now, and has developed a wide range of tools to counteract this problem.

The concept of notability plays a particularly important role in day-to-day activities, as it excludes the majority of “suspectible topics”. The most effective way to deter the majority of potential clients would be to make the notability criteria more stringent.

The help offered by sections such as the support team and mentoring program is available to everyone. These teams regularly work with professional writers. In contrast, the network of experts reacts very circumspectly to all enquiries that could be of a commercial nature.

European competition law can be important in helping the community to tackle overt and covert advertising in Wikipedia. We do not yet have sufficient experience of how this legislation can best be applied.

Verified accounts are those officially held by an organization or a well-known person. Account holders can have their account verified by Wikipedia’s support team, which came up with this idea and puts it into practice. There is a risk that verified accounts give the outside world the impression that official permission to edit articles is required.

Possible measures[Bearbeiten]

An unambiguous statement of incompatibility would be the simplest measure. There is also the idea of a “manifesto”, which would not require a collective opinion to be found, but could serve as a forum for Wikipedians.

The discussion page strategy, which is also referred to as the “bright line”, comes from English-language Wikipedia: this states that paid account holders may only write on discussion pages. The main namespace may not be edited. In this model, Wikipedia’s volunteers serve as an editorial team in terms of their tasks and position. This is similar to journalism. Paid writers could provide the editorial team with material, but would not be allowed to edit the articles themselves.

Irrespective of the specific content, a code of ethics similar to the British “Draft Best Practice Guidelines for PR” would lay down basic rules of conduct for advertisers. It would make sense if this code were drawn up in cooperation with the relevant providers and made known to them in this way. In the call for transparency, paid edits are allowed in principle. The verdict by the Higher Regional Court creates difficulties in this context. The idea of “certified accounts” is to combine the measures of identifying paid editors and subjecting their edits a priori to value judgments. The account holders would be certified by Wikipedia/Wikimedia and would undertake to follow all of the rules and generally to be good employees. Wikipedia/ Wikimedia would define and monitor the criteria. The providers could advertise their services by saying that they have a certified account.

Training courses for potential paid editors could resolve many of the content problems found in promotional articles. However, such courses would take up so much of writers’ time that at present only very few clients would be willing to pay for writers to attend them. Wikipedia’s existing network of experts does not yet work with commercially interested parties. It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to justify training for commercially interested parties to the public if this training were funded or even just coordinated by donations.