William Beutler on Wikipedia

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A Potential Supreme Court Nominee Probably Edited Her Own Wikipedia Article. Is It a Big Deal?

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on April 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

leah_ward_sears_wikiNew York-based media blog Gawker is reporting that Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and potential nominee to the United States Supreme Court by President Obama, edited her own Wikipedia article in late 2008 and early 2009.

While the possibility exists that someone else used her initials, last name and year she became a state Supreme Court Justice as a username, it usually turns out that this type of account is exactly that person. Gawker is focusing primarily on an edit she made that was favorable toward herself:

On May 6th, a user named LWsears1992 edited Leah Ward Sears’ Wikipedia page, adding the clause “Based in large part on her highly regarded record” to a passage about how she defeated an opponent in the 2004 race for Georgia Supreme Court. (Georgia is one of eight states that have the sort of weird policy of electing Supreme Court justices.)

This is technically correct, but not exactly right. While Gawker does have a screen shot of an edit by Lwsears1992 “adding” this, all she did was restore a phrase that had existed on the page since June 2005, added in the first place by a technology consultant in Atlanta. The phrase was removed again a few days later for lacking a source, and Lwsears1992 did not press the case further. Not that Sears should necessarily be making direct edits on matters of disagreement, but these are considerations that few Wikipedia outsiders understand.

In total, Lwsears1992 made 36 edits to Wikipedia, all of them relating to this particular article. So how did she do? Did she make the page better or worse, overall? To find out, I went through each and every edit, starting with the article as it appeared before she started working on it, November 3, 2008 and concluding with the article after she completed her work, on November 13, 2008. Here is what I found:


  • The fact is that Sears is being called out because she attempted to be transparent about it. However, it’s probable that she made a single edit an hour before her first editing session from the IP address in Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, she screwed up a template, rendering the “Infobox” sidebar a mess of code. But I count this as a positive, because of what happened next. Once she had caused this error, she created an account and undertook the task of fixing it. Not only did she do so, but approximately a third of her edits were devoted to getting this one thing right.
  • She uploaded her own photo, taking the time to release it under two free licenses, the old GNU license Wikipedia used to use for everything, and the Creative Commons license it uses now. She experimented with the sizing of the photo she added, including trying it at full size before settling upon 155 pixels wide, which is the width still.
  • She added useful context, such as noting that her resignation from the Court would coincide with the end of her term; this is unambiguously more useful than simply ending the sentence on “she will resign from the State Supreme Court at the end of June 2009.”
  • Chances are good she made the article sturdier in the long run, changing the article to read that she was the “first” African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state instead of the “only” one. Assuming this is correct, the former will always be true though the latter assuredly will not be.
  • She tried to protect her own page from vandalism by experimenting with templates meant to indicate the page cannot be edited in some circumstances. But as she was not an administrator, she couldn’t do this anyway. Once she saw it wasn’t working, she took them down. One could almost file this as a negative, because trying to get a page locked from editing is a sure sign of not understanding Wikipedia. On the other hand, changing your own mistake is a sign that you do. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt here.


  • She didn’t cite any source for the claim she is the first African-American female Chief Justice in a U.S. state, making the claim difficult to verify. Anytime one makes a claim of superiority or “firstness,” it helps to source the claim to avoid the dreaded “[citation needed]” tag.
  • She didn’t provide any edit summaries for her work, making it tedious to click through each and find out exactly what she did.
  • She made some changes that didn’t make the page better. In one edit, she edited internal site links embedded in the phrase “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” so that instead of directing people to articles about Chief Justices and the GA Supreme Court, it would go to a non-existent page that she probably assumed existed.
  • She also removed internal links to the names of her appointer (Zell Miller) and predecessor (Norman S. Fletcher) for no apparent reason; she also removed the link for “Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court” — perhaps after noticing that it did not lead anywhere. Odder still, she did replace some of this information, including Miller’s name, but removed Fletcher’s name after having initially sought to add it. In any case, he is back in the full article today.

What is the value of adding her photograph vs. removing the name of her predecessor? What is the value of adding new details which are presumably correct, but not citing independent sources? How bad is it to edit your Wikipedia article without seeking consensus of other editors? How should one seek to change their articles on Wikipedia in any case?

These questions and more like it have been coming up more often in recent months. It’s a subject recently addressed by the Wikimedia Foundation’s Jay Walsh in an interview with PR Week. It’s a subject that others are discussing, from law firms in the UK to PR firms around the world. It’s s a subject I weigh every day as a consultant on matters of Wikipedia, and in an article I just published in Politics Magazine.

My answer regarding Leah Ward Sears is that, she made the article better, but not much. She did not go about it the right way, but the right way is non-obvious to most, and the burden is on Wikipedia to make its rules understood by outsiders. While some of her edits were self-serving, they were of a mild sort. At most this was a venal sin, not a cardinal one. Gawker is turning this into a “gotcha” story on the implied theory that interacting with one’s own Wikipedia article is never acceptable. This is a myth, one widely believed and one propagated by many at Wikipedia simply to keep people from meddling with their pages en masse. This is understandable, but it won’t work out in the long term.

If Sears is Obama’s nominee and is further confirmed to the Supreme Court, perhaps it will help put an end to this kind of “gotcha”. I doubt this is significant enough to come up at confirmation hearings if she is nominated, and it should not be. But I will concede that would be kind of entertaining.

Image via Sears via Wikipedia.