Cash For Posts Scandal Whacks Wikipedia

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The world’s favourite online encyclopaedia loses its innocence

Two influential Wikipedia editors have been caught selling exposure on the world’s largest online encyclopaedia as a PR service, using it to promote private companies and the country of Gibraltar.

A trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK, Roger Bamkin, has been placing his clients’ entries on the front page of the sixth most visited site on the Internet, in exchange for cash. Meanwhile, “Wikipedian In Residence” Max Klein has launched a PR company which sells a specialised service – editing Wikipedia pages to improve his clients’ exposure.

The community has condemned the opportunistic editors, but both Bamkin and Klein say they have done nothing wrong.

Conflict of interest

According to an investigation by blogger Violet Blue published on CNET, the alarm was raised on Monday after a Wikipedia contributor noticed that a large number of Gibraltar-related stories were finding their way to the “Did You Know” (DYK) section on the front page of the website. In August, Gibraltar was featured as a Wikipedia DYK seventeen times.

Wiki, WikipediaIt turns out all of the entries were authored and submitted by Bamkin, a professional PR consultant whose current clients include the government of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar and Wikimedia Foundation have recently launched “Gibraltarpedia”, a collaborative project linking the online encyclopedia with the country’s landmarks through the use of QR codes.

Earlier, Bamkin worked for Monmouthshire County Council, at a time when a similar project called “Monmouthpedia” was launched. It wasn’t previously known that he was paid to promote his clients, but his LinkedIn profile states that “Monmouthpedia” delivered over £2m payback on a £50k investment, reports CNET.

Being paid for writing Wikipedia articles is considered a violation of the site’s guidelines, and is treated similarly to advertising on the site. However, Wikipedia policy does not explicitly state that the practice is forbidden, or specify the appropriate penalty.

According to Wikipedia contributor “Yazan”, the articles are “well-written and well-sourced”, but being paid for posting presents a “conflict of interest” and damages the reputation of the online encyclopaedia, which is already considered untrustworthy by many.

“It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favourable placement on the front page of Wikipedia or anywhere else,” wrote Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales in response to the DYK discussion.

Trust issues

Meanwhile, another influential Wikipedia editor, Max Klein, has been exposed as an owner of a full-blown “Wikipedia engagement” PR service UntrikiWiki. The service advises organisations on their use of the online encyclopaedia, and helps “leverage their knowledge through customized wiki solutions tailored to their needs”.

Both Bamkin and Klein are “Wikipedians In Residence”, and are not allowed to post articles if they involve conflicts of interest.Jimmy Wales at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Awards Show, 2011

“We have the expertise needed to navigate the complex maze surrounding ‘conflict of interest’ editing on Wikipedia. With more than eight years of experience, over 10,000 edits, and countless community connections we offer holistic Wikipedia services,” UntrikiWiki’s site claims.

“I was unaware of this case, and haven’t had time to look into it. If what you say is accurate, then of course I’m extremely unhappy about it. It’s disgusting,” commented Wales in the same discussion.

In response to the allegations, UntrikiWiki has claimed that it has never made a single Wikipedia edit for which it had a conflict of interest. “Although we have advertised such a service, we’ve not aggressively pursued it – and we have not accepted any clients interested in on-Wikipedia work,” said the company in a statement.

“We believe – strongly – that there’s nothing inherently wrong with accepting for-profit engagements that involve contributing to Wikipedia, as long as it’s approached in a transparent and ethical fashion,” it added.

“Starting now, and lasting indefinitely, we will not accept any paid conflict of interest Wikipedia editing work,” concludes the statement.

Back in 2009, Wales wrote that “it is not ok” for anyone to sell their services as a Wikipedia editor or administrator. However, the site, which is run by volunteers and sponsored by donations, currently doesn’t have the tools to investigate “conflict of interest” issues or a clear policy to punish the opportunists.

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