Conflict of Interest?

17 06 2010

My first ever paid freelancing job was to write two Wikipedia pages, one a biography of a Hungarian-Australian entomologist named George Bornemissza, and the other a outline of his work on the Australian Dung Beetle Project. I was commissioned to write the pages on behalf of George’s son, Zoltan, who wanted to commemorate his father’s life and work in some small way.

Almost a year later, and I have recently been commissioned with two other Wikipedia writing projects. The first was to write a Wikipedia page about the infamous, love-em-or-hate-em, and just today I uploaded a Wiki article about Father Robert Reed, Boston-based Catholic priest and director of the American CatholicTV network. Both of these projects were awarded via

Less than 24 hours after I wrote and uploaded the Father Reed article, and the Wiki geeks are already on my back. Apparently it’s frowned upon to be paid to write a Wikipedia article because it constitutes a conflict of interest. I do kind of see where they’re coming from, but my question is, if the article meets Wikipedia guidelines in terms of being non-biased, non-promotional and well sourced, does it really matter if I was paid or not? To a certain extent, I can understand why people may have some concerns over the two most recent Wikipedia offerings. As can be seen from the comments on this site, clearly has a mixed reputation, and it was difficult to write an encyclopaedic entry for a company without sounding like I was trying to promote them – especially as I’d been paid to do it in the first place! However, I do think that I have succeeded in my aims and produced articles that meet Wikipedia’s stringent rules; I am rather frustrated by the dictatorial Wikipedia administration volunteers who instantly blacklist articles they don’t like, rather than providing constructive criticism and feedback to the author.

As regards the Father Reed article, this too is non-biased, makes no outlandish claims and doesn’t scream “FATHER REED IS AMAZING AND SO IS CATHOLICTV!!” I’ve never met Father Reed, nor seen CatholicTV, nor am I likely to – I was simply providing a service. Father Reed, a Catholic priest for God’s sake, hired a third party to edit the page precisely because it is against Wikipedia guidelines to write about yourself. I really don’t know what the Wikipedians have got their knickers in a twist about.

The thing that has really got my goat however, is the fact that one of my lovingly-created dung beetle articles, the biography of George Bornemissza, which has happily sat on the Wikipedia shelf for almost a year without even so much as a whisper of a comment from an admin, has now been blacklisted because I apparently have a “close relationship” with the subject. I’m really quite upset about that. Not to discount the Freelancer or Father Reed pieces, but the George Bornemissza article really was a labour of love. I spent hours poring over notes, photographs, letters and articles to create the biography and its research counterpart, the Australian Dung Beetle Project. I feel that they are valuable contributions to Wikipedia and the scientific world at large and am most offended by the rash decisions taken by overzealous Wikipedia admins.


What are your thoughts on this “conflict of interest” issue? Am I right to feel upset at the suggestion that I am underhandedly trying to promote people, businesses or scientific research by exploiting Wikipedia, or am I nothing but a cold-hearted, money-grabbing swindler who deserves to be burnt at the Wikipedia stake? Does it matter if someone is paid to author a Wikipedia article? I’d be interested to hear what the general concensus is on this, and if I’m in the wrong, I won’t ever write another word on Wikipedia. Comments please!




7 responses

18 06 2010
Dan Simons

Hey Lise!

Interesting article, but I don’t think I can agree with you I’m afraid. Here’s why:
– Firstly, I think Wikipedia- like any website or online community- is entitled to have its own set of rules and customs, and to ‘frown’ on those who break them. There are plenty of places on the web where people can promote things, or pay people to promote them, and I think it’s reasonable for Wikipedia to try and retain a distinct identity through a distinctive way of operating. While the rules may seem over-strict, one of the reasons they are there is to prevent Wikipedia becoming over-run with product placement in the way that a lot of other websites are.
– Secondly, a central feature of Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute and edit it. That means both that you were able to write your articles in the first place, and that others can amend or delete them if they disagree for whatever reason. Nothing on there is permanent, and nothing belongs to any individual. So while it may be irritating to have something you worked hard on deleted, that’s kind of how it works. A blog is probably a more appropriate place for something like that.
– Thirdly, I think it’s really hard to remain entirely objective in any situation where you’ve been paid by someone with an interest in the subject. Even if you have succeeded in doing so, any critical reader is likely to doubt the credibility of a paid-for article, and this risks tainting Wikipedia itself. Also, I think alongside the issue of potential bias within an article is the issue of bias in choice of articles to write. It may be that the editors just didn’t feel these subjects were of sufficient significance to be included.
– Fourthly, while paying someone to write about you might be a way to stay within the letter of the rules, it doesn’t really feel within the spirit to me.

Anyway, just my tuppence worth. Hope you’re well!


18 06 2010
Devaraj Muralidharan

Dear Lisa A martin,

As a free-lancer, I can fully understand and appreciate your feelings. i have gone through the same too.

I was commissioned by one Publishing Co in Malaysia to write a piece on ” South Afrfica’ without ever visiting the country. I did a lot of sustained research on the internet, including Wikip[edia, and came up with a piece of about 16 pages, covering all the places of interest, with special emphasis on the venues of FIFA. Imagine my shock when it was thrown off, and a rotten piece of just 2 pages, which was euphimistic to say the least – it was all flowery language and little matter of substance, was substituted in its place. And this for a magazine of repute, for the Malaysian Airports Authority, which never even got to see my worki.

What to do, we have manipulators everywhere, and Editors and Publishers ill-qualified for the job, everywhere!

With kind thouights,
Devaraj Muralidharan.

18 06 2010

As long as it’s unbiased, I don’t see a problem. I’m not a Wikipedian, though.

18 06 2010
Katy Wood

Hi Lisa,

I really feel for you on this. I remember you talking about the dung beetle project work at the time and how much effort you put into the research. I think so long as you keep to their guidelines, as you have clearly done, then there shouldn’t be a problem.

Who exactly is supposed to write the more specialist articles? If it can’t be the party who the article is about, and it can’t be someone who is being paid, then I would imagine that this really narrows down the scope they can cover. Surely it would mean that only mainstream things can be written about, with more specialist areas being omitted because there isn’t anyone with sufficient expertise who is willing (and able) to give their time for free to write the articles.


18 06 2010

I think the editor who put the COI notice on has been unnecessarily rude by just doing so and quoting a proposed policy guideline in response. He should in my view, at least have made an effort to highlight specific problems with the article. It should be about the article, not the person contributing.

Some users are utterly obsessed with policy, and this can often detract from the goal of making Wikipedia a better encyclopedia. I don’t know the user in question, but I don’t think his actions have helped. A lot of people get put off from contributing as a result of run-ins with policy nuts. I once had someone slap an absurd AfD on a page I created when a google search would have found thousands of reliable sources.

I think it’s important that Wikipedia is neutral and that editors should notify and be careful when they have a COI; but often those closest to the subject are best placed to provide encyclopedic content. To remove it purely for this reason or to drive good people away is a loss.

21 06 2010

Thanks for all your comments guys. The Father Robert Reed article particularly seems to have got the Wikipedia admins in a tizzy and unfortunately it looks like the page will be deleted in the next day or two :(. I’m not sure what else I can do – I’ve cleaned up the formatting (which admittedly was a little messy), added new references from independent sources and changed some of the wording to make it sound less promotional (not that I thought it was promotional in the first place), but now the discussion seems to have swung from “DELETE! DELETE! PAID AUTHOR ALERT!” to “DELETE! DELETE! Who the hell is this Robert Reed guy anyways?!” Apparently, being the director of a large Catholic TV station and being a game show, talk show and TV show host isn’t “notable” enough. Sigh…

25 06 2010

The Wiki page has now been deleted. SOB! But one of the nicer Wikipedia admins has offered to salvage some of the text and graft it into the main Catholic TV website, so at least that’s something.

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