Wikipedia terms of use

Astute readers of Wikipedia, or even readers who are half asleep, cannot have failed to notice the prominent notice at the top of every Wikipedia article at present (March 3rd, 2014). Undisclosed paid editing is what Wikipedia is trying to stamp out. The notice states, in no uncertain terms, that if you edit or write articles for Wikipedia, you must by law disclose if you are paid to do so. Will this tactic improve the quality of Wikipedia? It might, for example, prevent articles like the one I spotted on Euthymol toothpaste, about which I wrote in another post.

It’s very unlikely. In fact, it won’t make any difference at all. Even though Wikipedia goes on to say the payment might be in kind, or even indirect:

If you work for company Acme, and, as part of your job responsibilities, you edit Wikipedia articles about company Acme, you satisfy the minimum requirement of the Terms of Use if you simply say that you edit on behalf of company Acme on your user page.

This sounds very clear. But  the way that Wikipedia has been set up guarantees the anonymity of contributors and editors, so this directive can be ignored with impunity.

To prove the point, I signed up to edit Wikipedia. I was told to give a name, and it was suggested to me that using my real name was not necessarily a good idea – fine, I called myself MichaelNobody. After that, I was asked to add an email address :

Wikipedia sign-up form

But the email address is optional! I then proceeded to make a couple of small edits to articles (in fact Wikipedia helpfully took me to pages that needed editing). I edited conscientiously, I believe – I changed a capital S for a lower-case S, which is hardly very contentious. I removed the term “passionate” from the sentence:

The Scottish Youth Parliament, or SYP, is a democratic, politically independent, inclusive organization set up by a group of passionate youth workers working as a national voice for the youths in Scotland.

Who knows, they may well be passionate. But the whole process means that nobody knows who I was. Wikipedia will have a copy of my IP address, but the preference for anonymity for Wikipedia editors means that if I work for Acme, or Johnson & Johnson, or any other company, then nobody need ever be the wiser. I can’t see how such a system can ever be changed to improve the quality of entries. Now, if Wikipedia had enough editors to check the articles already posted, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, there are more than 500,000 entries in Wikipedia that have never been edited. That’s quite a bit of catching up to do. It looks like the entry for Euthymol is safe from change for a few years yet!