Edit conflicts are old hat for Wikipedia. But what happens when people hire themselves out to PR firms whose clients have a financial interest in what Wikipedia articles say? In an article focusing on medical examples Joe Pinkser reports on the problem in The Atlantic.
So, who uses Wikipedia articles, and how?
It is not, however, obvious just how big the problem is.But the way people answer their everyday questions today means that a lot of research does end on Wikipedia. The site’s pages are regularly among the top links that search engines turn up—among the general public, the site’s medical articles are estimated to have a larger readership than WebMD. Google has even started embedding excerpts from Wikipedia pages alongside its search results. Wikipedia isn’t just the final destination of typical denizens of the Internet; sometimes it’s where professional researchers end up as well. Fifty to 70 percent of physicians have been found to consult it as a source of medical information—a testament to its reliability.
Because an undisclosed paid edit that goes through is undetectable, it is hard to empirically assess the effectiveness of Wikipedia’s responses to conflict-of-interest editing over the years. Nowadays, the estimated prevalence of paid editing changes depending on whom you ask. “The site itself is so massive that when you talk about problems, they actually tend to be quite small compared to the overall body of work,” Maher says. She points out that Wiki-PR, the furthest-reaching paid-editing operation yet discovered, only made a few thousand edits. Still, undisclosed paid editing is enough of a fly in the ointment to prompt the Wikimedia Foundation to say it “affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia.”