Wikimedian in Residence

Conflict of Interest advice

Advice on how to approach the creating and editing of articles where you have a close association e.g. about yourself, your family, friends, workplace etc.

I'm limited in my role as an employee of the University of Edinburgh in that, under Wikipedia's Conflict of Interest guidelines, I am not permitted to edit pages closely associated with the university or its staff (I facilitate training sessions to enable others to edit essentially). And if you are close to the subject of this page you too would not be able to edit it, unless of course it included anything defamatory.

It is always better if someone independent of the subject writes about that subject. Even if you are being helpful and objective it doesn’t look good if your links to the subject are exposed, however well-meaning. That’s why we advise adding disclaimers to your Wikipedia user page adding any affiliations or paid roles so that any conflict of interest is abundantly transparent. NB: Institutions have been banned from editing their own pages when COI is discovered so this does need to be taken seriously.

Below is some general advice we give when Conflict of Interest instances occur.

Best practice advice

  • Contact myself for advice in the first instance at ewan.mcandrew@ed.ac.uk
  • Contact the volunteers who write Wikipedia - This email address is a good port of call: info-en-q@wikimedia.org. It may take a little while to get a response, especially for more complicated issues, as there is always a backlog of emails. You should summarise the issue briefly to make it easier for volunteers to deal with. A long wall of text in the first message is likely to be looked over in favour of requests which are easier to deal with.
  • Don't edit the article yourself - Even if well-intentioned, this comes across as whitewashing and the Wikimedia community is strongly opposed to this as they feel editing about yourself introduces bias. It also runs the risk of being picked up by the media, or resulting in backlash from the Wikimedia community. Trying to remove something can have the side effect of highlighting it.
  • Understand it may take a long time to fix - It's worth pointing out that it can take a long time to fix problems, and patience is important.
  • Provide sources - If you want information added to Wikipedia, readers need to be able to look it up for themselves so reliable sources (eg: newspaper, organisation reports/blogs, articles, etc) are essential. The same applies if you are trying to disprove something.
  • Be clear in what you want - When asking for changes, break it down into clear bullet points to make it easier for the person reading your request.

Other options

The above email address would be the first port-of-call as discussions are not public there and it is run by volunteer editors who are experienced in dealing with article issues. But be aware it can be slow. There are alternatives but with each you are more likely to encounter an inexperienced Wikipedia editor who may not be able to help. In each situation, you need to be clear about your link to the article subject.

  • The BLP (Biographies of Living People) noticeboard - This can get more attention to your case, but the discussion will be public. This is best done by an experienced Wikipedia editor.
  • The article talk page - Each article has a talk page, where the article is discussed. By clicking edit at the top of the page, and then pasting in  {{request edit}} you can then explain the situation and what you want changed you can start a dialogue about the article. However,  do be aware that this is noteboard area is public and depends on how skilled the responding editor is.

A themed editing event?

Previously, we have looked at how the University of Edinburgh Library would like their page improved but under the Conflict of Interest guidelines their staff are not generally permitted to do this as they are too close to the subject to be deemed sufficiently impartial. What they can do, however, is prepare a list of sources that could be cited to improve the page and a volunteer editor, independent of the library can be asked to sit down for an afternoon to improve the page using the list of sources provided.

In this way, the paying knowledge forward model is one we advocate. Glasgow Caledonian University Library wrote the page for Shetland Library for example.

Hence, we could host an afternoon Wikipedia editing event in one of the university's rooms themed on libraries, for example, and invite volunteer editors to create/edit pages on this subject using the reliable published secondary sources available to improve the page.

We can pitch the idea to colleagues around the university to coincide with a special day (or week) in the forthcoming period perhaps if this was thought agreeable.

Transparency is key

Where an editor independent of the topic being edited cannot be sourced then there is a certain degree of flexibility to working with the Wikipedia community on COI related pages. E.g. The National Library of Scotland has recently hosted an intern focused on improving pages related to it and its collections so working with the Wikipedia community and being very transparent in your editing intentions ahead of time is key to contributing accurate fact-checked knowledge which can be seen to benefit both communities.

Do drop me an email if you would like to discuss further.

Further resources 

© Ewan McAndrew and Hannah Rothmann, University of Edinburgh, 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0, unless otherwise indicated.