Wikipedia and Conflicts of Interest

Will Wikipedia survive the constant sniping its been getting about quality, style and everything else? In the last few weeks, I’ve observed (nay, been involved with) two issues relating to their conflict of interest policy. To save the blushes, I won’t divulge who was involved, but the first incident started when a PR operative at a medium-sized company decided that because a rival company had an entry in Wikipedia, they should have one too.

The fun began in predictable fashion when said operative copy/pasted an intensely buzzword-encrusted synopsis of the company, and left it at that. No attribution or indication of noteworthiness was made – he didn’t even use a company stub. The Wikipedian hoards duly descended and removed a chunk of buzz-verbiage as well as making a deletion request for the entire article. The cherry on the cake was that the name of the account used to create the entry contained the name of the company itself. A dead give away for conflict of interest.

Imagine then the kerfuffle when the operative then pasted the buzzwords back in the next day, without so much as a peep on the discussion page. The knives then came out until the edit was reverted and I had explained personally to the operative what was happening. Luckily, the deletion request was refused, since the company is clearly noteworthy (they just hadn’t provided the right evidence of this). The COI tag remained, seemingly as punishment for the indiscretion, until somebody pointed out that the article and its attributions were perfectly OK.

A second incident this week took place on a mailing list in which somebody asked members to update the organisation’s existing, but outdated, Wikipedia entry. A self-proclaimed Wikipedian on the list objected on the grounds of the COI policy, and a good old flame fest ensued.

The two incidents raise some questions about COI on Wikipedia, notably the issue of primary and secondary sources. It would seem that according to the policy, primary sources are pretty much banned from updating articles and only those with access to secondary sources are allowed. This would seem to be rather against Wikipedia’s principle of being a fount of knowledge rather than just a fount of links to knowledge. Also notable was the use of the COI tag as a kind of re-enforcement of an initial objection to lack of attribution and poor style – for which there are both perfectly usable tags. The PR operative’s account name seemed to be a red rag to a bull in that regard.

I suppose the good news is that whenever somebody says you can plonk anything on Wikipedia, you’ll know they’ve never read a discussion page on an article. The bad news is that the Wikipedians need taming I think.