Article Lead Image

One of Wikimedia’s largest donors accused in paid editing scandal

Did Harvard Univeristy’s Belfer center pay an editor to cite its scholars?


Tim Sampson


The Wikimedia community has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks after allegations surfaced that one of the Wikimedia Foundation’s largest donors may have been engaged in a pay-for-play editing scheme.

In 2011, the Stanton Foundation made a $3.6 million donation to Wikimedia, the largest one-time gift in the non-profit’s history. About $53,000 of that money in turn was used to pay a Wikipedia editor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Over the course of this editor’s year-long residency at the Belfer Center, he allegedly gave favorable treatment the center’s scholars, and contributed little else of value to the encyclopedia. All this is made even more suspect by the fact that director of the Belfer Center, and the head of the Stanton Foundation are married.

Allegations of this nature cut to the very core of Wikipedia’s staunch ethical doctrine, which dictates that all editorial content should originate from a neutral position free of advocacy. Some have inferred nefarious intent on the part of Stanton, Wikimedia and Belfer. However, the debacle at Belfer may have more to do with ignorance than malice.

The trouble all began back in 2012, when the Stanton Foundation requested that Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Wikipedia project, create a Wikipedian-in-residence position at Belfer.

Wikipedians-in-residence are employees who work in tandem with libraries, museums and other research institutes to improve the overall quality of Wikipedia. These residents are paid, either by Wikimedia or their host organization. In this instance, the Belfer Center was interested in improving Wikipedia articles related to international security.

In general, the Wikipedian-in-residence program rubs a lot of Wikipedians the wrong way. The site’s thousands of volunteer editors adhere firmly to the Neutral Point of View doctrine. In order to help Wikipedia be taken seriously, they insist that all editorial content be free of bias or conflicts-of-interest. On the later point, it’s assumed that professional editors will inherently work with an agenda to advocate for whoever pays them.

Wikimedia takes the stance that, in theory, residents are solely working to advance the encyclopedia. Though they are charged by their benefactors to improve certain topics on the site, they aren’t expected to shill for their research institutions.

Gregory Kohs, an avowed critic of the Wikimedia Foundation, has published a series of articles in recent weeks about conflicts-of-interest perpetrated by high-profile Wikimedia donors. Based on accusations originally made by Wikipedia editor Russavia (another firm Wikimedia dissident), Kohs’ latest piece claims that Elizabeth Allison, the head of the Stanton Foundation, and her husband Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center, essentially bought themselves publicity on the site.

In the summer of 2012, Timothy Sandole, a recent graduate of the Columbia University master’s in international affairs program, applied for a position that called for an “an experienced Wikipedia editor.” The position would be paid for by the Stanton Foundation through Wikimedia, and the Belfer Center had the final say on who it hired.  In fact, Sandole was not even a registered Wikipedia editor until July 10, 2012, the final day of the application period. But the center hired him anyway, ostensibly because of his expertise in international relations.

A total of $53,690 was set aside for Sandole’s year of service, but by his own account, he only made “80 significant edits” to 63 different articles. An active Wikipedia volunteer might make hundreds if not thousands of such edits during the same time.

Critics insinuate that Sandole was given the position because of a perceived willingness to play ball with the Allisons and the Belfer Center. In addition to this sparse editing record, they point toward an edit he made citing Graham Allison’s scholarly writings. He also made some supposedly problematic edits that relied heavily on the work of scholars closely tied to the Belfer Center. And a joke Sandole made about wanting to write a book called, “Why Graham Allison Rocks,” has been offered up as further evidence of bias.

But Sandole, who is now employed by the Belfer Center outright, feels he’s being smeared. Speaking to the Daily Dot, he agreed that there were problems with the position he was asked to fill. But he feels most of the blame rest with Wikimedia.

“I was not being properly managed by anybody,” Sandole said.

“The person I dealt with at Wikimedia didn’t seem to know anything about Wikipedia.”

In retrospect, he admits it was a bad idea for Wikimedia and the Belfer Center to create the position in the first place. And given the complex social landscape and ethical guidelines of the online encyclopedia’s community of editors, he also concedes that hiring someone without Wikipedia experience was an error. But Sandole doesn’t feel he should be blamed for accepting a job that, at the outset, seemed like a good fit.

Once Sandole went to work, he said there was little oversight from Wikimedia—something Wikimedia Deputy Director Erik Möller also admitted in a public letter to a Wikimedia listserv. And what little supervision Sandole did receive came from Wikimedia fundraising staffers, who Sandole described as being clueless about the content side of Wikipedia.

Furthermore, Sandole said he had few options but to cite work from scholars associated with the Belfer Center, including Graham Allison.

“What I don’t think people on Wikipedia understand is that everybody who is hot in the field is associated with the Belfer Center.”

He points toward specific edits he made on the Wikipedia entry for Operation Olympic Games, the U.S. cyber attack that disrupted the Iranian nuclear program. The story was broken by the New York Times’s David Sanger, a Belfer Center fellow, who Sandole described on the article’s talk page as “the leading voice on the topic.”

Sandole also said that Belfer never pushed “an agenda” on him and that he only met Graham Allison a handful of times during his year-long residency.

Wikimedia did, however, contact Sandole several times, asking him “to be conscious of not over-representing Harvard University in his research,” according to Möller’s written assessment of the situation.

But the deputy director does not go so far as to suggest a nefarious motivation behind Sandole’s edits.

“As far as I can tell, everyone involved acted in good faith,” Möller wrote.

Möller agreed that more oversight was needed during Sandole’s residency, as well as an upfront conversation between the Stanton Foundation and Wikimedia about the potential conflict-of-interest issues. Wikimedia “did and does not intend to undertake” anymore programs that include paid editing, he wrote.

Sandole says the number of edits don’t reflect the time-consuming amounts of research that went into making them. He also says that, for the year, he was only paid $40,000, not the $53,690 allocated for the residency. Wikimedia spokesperson Jay Walsh confirms that the remaining $13,690 went toward administrative overhead costs.

The Belfer Center did not return the Daily Dot’s request for comment regarding this story.

Most of the concerned parties now seem to agree that the Belfer residency was an ill-conceived and poorly executed endeavour. However, it’s just the latest chapter in Wikipedia’s ongoing saga confronting the thorny issue of paid-editing.

As one of the most visited websites in the world, Wikipedia regularly tops Google searches for any given topic. That’s made it a valuable piece of online real estate for marketing and PR gurus. Those looking to promote themselves on Wikipedia have gone to elaborate and deceitful lengths.

The Wikimedia Foundation is considering combating the problem with new guidelines for conflict-of-interest disclosures. These new terms of use would require all Wikipedians to “disclose [their] employer, client, and affiliation with respect to any contribution to any Wikimedia Projects for which [they] receive, or expect to receive, compensation.” It’s not an endorsement of paid editing, but it is a move designed to prohibit users from “engaging in deceptive activities.”

Unless those guidelines do change, paid-editing scandals will likely continue to be a normal part of the Wikipedia news cycle.

Photo by by Muns/Wikimedia Commons (remix by Jason Reed) (CC BY SA 2.0)

The Daily Dot