William Beutler on Wikipedia

Bats in the Belfer: A Beginner’s Guide to the Biggest Wikipedia Controversy You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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on April 2, 2014 at 7:47 pm by William Beutler

If you follow Wikipedia a bit more than casually, you might have heard something lately about nefarious goings on about the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable trust called the Stanton Foundation, and something called the Belfer Center at Harvard University. If you follow Wikipedia in the news generally, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

The short version—if I can manage to pull this off—is that from 2012 to 2013 the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF, which oversees Wikipedia) followed the request of a major donor (the Stanton Foundation) to coordinate the placement a paid editor (named Timothy Sandole) with the Belfer Center (at Harvard University) to directly edit articles (which WMF has always said it does not and would not do). The position was supposed to go to an experienced Wikipedia editor, but Sandole had no Wikipedia experience before he applied for the position.

The work he contributed over the course of the following year hardly seemed to justify his compensation, and some non-trivial edits were of direct benefit to the Belfer Center and Stanton Foundation. It’s probably worth noting at some point here that the principals at Belfer and Stanton are a married couple. It is also worth mentioning that several Wikipedia veterans privately criticized the initiative to Foundation employees and warned this would not go well. As you may have gathered, it did not go well.

I’m going to repeat myself and underline the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation has always said that it wants to stays out of content creation or editorial decisions on Wikipedia, and it’s frankly kind of boggling to find that’s exactly what happened here.

So, this all looks really bad. It is also complicated by a handful of other problems:

  • News broke at the same time as the Wikimedia Foundation considered an amendment to its Terms of Use intended to require greater disclosure by paid editors—a highly relevant situation, you might say.
  • Also concurrently, people associated with the Wikipedia watchdog Wikipediocracy had been hammering the Wikimedia Foundation for looking the other way when prominent Wikipedia donors had edited their own article—an even more relevant situation, clearly.
  • And of course, all of this coming at a time when WMF has been struggling to name a successor to long-serving executive director Sue Gardner, whom this blog has praised, but whose track record of success seems to be unraveling as the end of her term draws (presumably) nearer.

So there’s context and commentary, but if you’re intrigued, I promise there is a lot more to read. Here’s what you need to know, and then some:

  • April 26, 2012—Not quite two years ago, and long before this became a controversial matter, a post on the official Wikimedia blog—“Can you help Wikipedians collaborate with Harvard University?”—announced the initial call for Wikipedians to apply for a position to work with Harvard’s Belfer Center.

    You can actually still read the original job description on Jobvite, seeking a “Campus Wikipedian”. The position began August 2012, and concluded August 2013.

  • March 2, 2014—The first public report that something might have been amiss was published one month ago today, by a Polish editor best known as Odder, in a blog post titled “The pot and the kettle, the Wikimedia way”. This lays out a good deal of the key info, and its implications, but the connection between Belfer and Stanton had not yet been made. Still, Odder’s editorialization remains valid:

    The WMF’s unprecedented role in endorsing a project so negligent in adhering to broadly accepted ethical principles not only undermines the integrity and quality of Wikipedia, but also raises questions about the role of the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center in it.

  • March 19, 2014—After percolating in private discussions and email lists for a couple weeks, the matter was finally raised on the publicly accessible Wikimedia-l mailing list under the heading “Timothy Sandole and (apparently) $53,690 of WMF funding”, with a link to Odder’s post and some pointed questions about WMF’s handling of the matter. Want to read more from this thread? OK, you asked for it.
  • That same day, Wikipedia’s volunteer-written newsletter, the Signpost, put a spotlight on the issue, detailing the case as it was then understood. Following Wikipedia’s cautious, Timesian house style, it was titled “Foundation-supported Wikipedian in residence faces scrutiny”.
  • March 20, 2014—The next day, Liam Wyatt and Pete Forsyth, two editors who had warned against the Stanton-Belfer arrangement went public with their previously stated misgivings. Wyatt’s concluded:

    The WMF dug themselves into this hole despite the frantic attempts, which were largely rebuffed, of several of the GLAM-WIKI community help them fix it – or at least reduce the number of problems. Now, it’s up to the WMF to dig themselves out again. Ironic given the current attention being given by the WMF to paid editing…

  • March 21, 2014—Just one more day after that, a longtime Wikipedia antagonist published the findings of his own research on the same list, with the subject line “Belfer report – analysis from Russavia”. This posting finally connected the dots between Stanton’s Liz Allison and Belfer’s Graham Allison.
  • Finally the WMF was moved to respond, and deputy director Erik Moeller sent a fairly detailed, bulleted reply to the same list just a few hours later. It acknowledged some edits by Sandole seemed to favor Belfer and also Stanton in a way that raised exactly the kind of “conflict of interest” issues Wikipedia is often worried about.
  • April 1, 2014—Yesterday more details arrived with a blog post on Wikipediocracy titled “Business as Usual”, identifying even more problematic Belfer-Stanton edits (if less implicating of WMF) by individuals assoicated with it, and added substantially more detail to the record. As mentioned before, this is a website disliked by many in the Wikipedia community, and this post in particular written by Gregory Kohs, who has more than earned his reputation as Wikipedia’s #1 gadfly. Indeed, there is often too much innuendo floating around these parts, but they still do investigations that no one else does.
  • Finally, we come to the official report from the Foundation, written by a team and presented by none other than Sue Gardner herself. With an even more prosaic title than Signpost, Gardner laid out the “Wikipedian in Residence/Harvard University assessment”.
    • It acknowledged the “mistake” of combining “fundraising and programmatic work”, not listening to people like Wyatt and Forsyth, and that no course correction was done. The “decisions” made were mostly bureaucratic promises to apply more “scrutiny” and “process” and a tentative date for May 1 has been set for more information. We’ll see. But one decision is quite clear, so far as it goes:

      In the future, the Wikimedia Foundation will not support or endorse the creation of paid roles that have article writing as a core focus, regardless of who is initiating or managing the process.

      In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.

So there you have it. What happens next? Probably nothing regarding the above; an official report and an acknowledgment like the one which arrived yesterday is about as much as you can get. The person at the top is already leaving her position (eventually) and it seems very unlikely that anyone else who made “mistakes” is in line for that job anyway.

That said, it’s certainly not how Sue Gardner wanted the last chapter of her leadership at WMF to read. And whatever this means for the Terms of Use proposal, or the larger question of paid editors or “conflict of interest” on Wikipedia, will be written in the next.

  1. I think it’s still very telling that even in Sue Gardner’s “official” response, she will not even acknowledge that Liz Allison essentially manipulated the WMF to sign the paychecks for a paid promoter of Allison’s husband’s “center” at Harvard. It seems to me that Liz Allison knew it would look bad if she skimmed money of the Stanton Foundation to give directly to her husband, so she used the WMF to put another layer of opacity in the deal. (I am also amused by the fact that Liz Allison pays herself $225,000 a year to run the Stanton Foundation on a part-time basis. Such a noble use of her dead friend’s hard-earned fortune.)

  2. Shocking — none of the usual Wikimedia cheerleaders showed up here to shout at you for “criticizing that which is beyond criticism”, William. It’s what they usually do when bad news hits and is subject to public discussion somewhere other than on a WMF server or IRC channel, where they can silence their critics.

    It does appear that Russavia and Greg have struck a very raw nerve. It’s SOP to go into “grim silence mode” when these things happen, and that’s what we see now. Even more comical is Jimbo’s outright refusal to discuss it, on his talkpage or elsewhere.

    Now, if we could just get some journalists to notice this story. They’re usually johnny-on-the-spot whenever The Holy Jimbo Speaketh, or when a Wikipedian wants to trumpet one initiative or another. Yet the people who should be reporting on Wikipedia are much scarcer when a really substantial scandal hits.

    BTW: there are so many instances of WMF donors diddling their own biographies or other articles, I’ve given up trying to count them. Safe bet this has happened tens of thousands of times since 2001. We’ll never know for certain, too many of them were covered up.

  3. «In other words, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided that it will not do the one thing it previously said it would not do, but that it just did anyway.»
    Well put. :)

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