Wikipedia has become a go-to source for the online world with 30 million articles in 278 languages. The site can be a minefield, though, for government and its employees who want to ensure online information about their agencies is accurate but are wary of violating conflict of interest policies.
Nextgov spoke recently with Jay Walsh, communications lead for the Wikimedia Foundation, about how government employees should use the collaboratively edited online encyclopedia and about what governments and its employees can do to make Wikipedia better.
Here are the highlights.
When can and should government employees edit Wikipedia articles about their own agencies? Is there a way to do this without violating conflicts of interest?
There’s no quick and easy answer to this, Walsh said, but the best advice is to tread very lightly on any topics you have a professional interest in, to disclose any conflicts you have and to understand Wikipedia culture well before you make any edits.
If a novice Wikipedian creates a profile simply to edit an article about his agency director, that will certainly be seen as a conflict of interest, Walsh said, even if the employee had the best of intentions. Those edits will likely be reverted by other Wikipedians, he said, especially if they include removing negative information.
If a government employee who’s also a longtime Wikipedia editor makes a few factual corrections in an article related to her agency’s work and discloses her conflict on the article’s “Talk” page, on the other hand, many -- but not all -- Wikipedians would say that’s acceptable, he said.
“The short answer is most Wikipedians prefer that people don’t get involved in topics with which they’re professionally connected,” he said. “That being said there are a lot of hard working Wikipedians who work in an industry and they may edit that topic to make sure it’s accurate. That involves a high level of disclosure. They’ll say I work in this department, so I want to make clear there’s a substantial conflict, but I’m fixing an error.”
“That’s likely to be non-controversial,” he said. “It’s making Wikipedia better and it’s transparent. That’s the best case scenario. Unfortunately, what most people do when they’re doing it wrong is they’re removing information that’s backed up by relevant sources like media and academic articles, and that smacks of censorship. That’s not making Wikipedia better; it’s effectively vandalizing it.”
Is there a danger that this conflict of interest policy might scare off some of the best editors on a topic?
“What’s interesting is that those people who disclose conflicts are likely to be active Wikipedia users, meaning they’re probably editing on a whole range of topics from athletics to opera to pandas,” Walsh said.
“They probably have a history of thousands of edits so they’ve built up trust in the Wikipedia community and they’re unlikely to do something that will destroy their credibility or harm their reputations. Wikipedia is a meritocracy. If one Wikipedian is looking at another all they have to do is see how many edits they’ve made and how many have been challenged or reverted. There are some Wikipedians who will never touch an area where they have a conflict. And there are some really good editors who occasionally edit a topic where there may be a conflict, but they’ll be really careful about it and disclose everything.”
What about government employees who aren’t active Wikipedians? What should they do if they spot an error?
There are three ways non-Wikipedians can fix factual errors, Walsh said. The easiest route is to alert a volunteer editor through Wikipedia’s contact page, describe the error and include documentation to back up your claim.
That usually gets errors fixed pretty quickly, he said, but because Wikipedia’s run almost exclusively by volunteers the turnaround won’t be immediate.
“We’re not like Dell or Apple,” he said. “We can’t necessarily resolve your situation while you’re on the phone.”
Another fix, he said, is to reach out to other people in the agency who are active Wikipedians -- there almost always are some -- and rely on their expertise about how to handle it.
Finally, the error spotter can wade into the world of Wikipedia himself, Walsh said. That means creating a personal username, disclosing basic details about who you are such as “an accountant working for the Treasury Department” and reading through the Talk page and edit history of the article with an error and, possibly, related articles.
At that point, the error spotter can post a message to the Talk page noting his conflict and describing the error with documentation to back it up, Walsh said. Once that’s done, another page editor will likely make the correction for him.
So, outside of spotting errors, what can government employees do for Wikipedia?
The best thing government employees can do for Wikipedia is contribute their knowledge and talents as Wikipedians, Walsh said. That’s because government employees tend to match the profile of a good Wikipedia editor. They’re typically highly educated; they’re used to working within pretty tight regulatory boundaries; and they may have a broad slate of interests that goes well beyond their professional work.
What can the government itself do for Wikipedia?
The best thing the government can do for Wikipedia is to make its own data more available and more digestible so Wikipedians can rely on it as a primary source, Walsh said.
“Government data is an excellent, high quality source and it’s trusted more than a lot of other data because it goes through so much auditing and review,” Walsh said.
The CIA’s World Factbook, for example is among the most cited sources on Wikipedia for geographic and population data.
Government data is often difficult to use, though, either because it’s tough to find online and not regularly updated or because it’s presented in a format that’s inscrutable for most citizen editors.
The Wikimedia Foundation is also developing the project Wikidata, a repository of structured data sets, some of which can be digitally linked to content in Wikipedia articles. That way, for instance, when new Census Bureau data comes out, a single edit in Wikidata about the population of Los Angeles could automatically change that figure in hundreds of Wikipedia articles.
In addition to making basic data sets available, Walsh urged the government to put more of its non-digital holdings online, such as historical documents held by the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
“The more free stuff there is the better we can bring it to the world,” he said.
Guidance from the government
Nextgov also asked the digital team at the General Services Administration about guidance for federal employees editing Wikipedia. Here’s what they had to say:
“As a collaboratively written platform, Wikipedia operates in the same manner as many social media sites. In that regard, the same federal agency policies that employees follow for Facebook, Twitter, etc., also apply to their use of Wikipedia.
“Wikipedia has well established policies and recommendations to keep content in line with its five pillars built on the ideas of neutrality, openness, civility and flexibility. Government users should be transparent and open in providing and editing content in line with these five pillars.
“Wikipedia strongly discourages users and organizations from adding or editing content about themselves. Even with the best of intentions, self-editing can be perceived negatively. Since Wikipedia follows the encyclopedia model to have verifiable supporting sources, a best practice recommendation for federal contributors is to focus on their own agency Web content and to rely on Wikipedia’s established editing process for verification.”