I am a PhD researcher looking into how information is curated online. In particular I study how curation has moved from being the pursuit of a singular expert within an institution such a museum, gallery or archive, to a collective endeavour in which many “citizen curators” (a term that I am developing) work together to curate content both off and online. I’m looking at this curation in a very similar way to the Web 2.0 phenomena of the citizen journalist, where technology has opened by avenues of participatory, public driven projects in an unprecedented manner. With this in mind my research focuses quite heavily the larger Wikimedia project, so my interest was immediately piqued by the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project.
Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) is an initiative to generate, improve and develop skeptical content on Wikipedia. It is championed by Susan Gerbic of the Monterey County Skeptics and Tim Farley, a well-known research fellow at the JREF. To the most part has been received well and somewhat uncritically by the skeptical community at large. Although the project is about 3 years old now, it only came up on my radar this year as Susan Gerbic was a speaker at QEDcon in Manchester last April (her video of her talk that I reference numerous times can be found here). Whilst we can all agree that improving and adding well researched content to Wikipedia is a worthwhile endeavour, the lack of critical examination of the GSoW by the skeptical community as a whole has given me cause for concern.
My main unease stems from the groups use of what Gerbic termed during her QED talk as a “secret forum”, that on becoming one of her circle of editing skeptics one is admitted to. This appears to be a Proboards forum (previously they worked through a private Facebook group) which I have no knowledge of the nature of the discussions on the forum as I have not approached the group to become a member. There are a few issues with conducting discussions in “secret” away from the open talk format on Wikipedia.
This forum could be interpreted as a “secret cabal”, something that runs counter to the spirit of Wikipedia: “This type of cabal is restricted in its membership and secretive about its functions or existence. The aims of such groups may be disruption of the project, promotion of its members to become Wikipedia functionaries, or canvassing and/or meatpuppetry and/or tag teaming, possibly to impress a specific point of view on the encyclopedia” (Wikipedia:Why Wikipedia is not so great). This could spawn problems around conflict of interest (COI), especially if the initial conversations about the creation, editing or deletion of articles are not done out in the open. One of the main reasons for all of discussions on Wikipedia being conducted in public is so a consensus with the larger Wikipedia public can be met. The group is in effect creating their own consensus independent of Wikipedia, which could lead to legitimate concerns surrounding any agenda or bias within the content once it goes live on Wikipedia. The content begins life in a skeptical echo-chamber, which the group then may feel a need to defend the article against editing once on Wikipedia. It also raises questions about the nature of the discussions going on, what is it about their content that makes them reluctant to conduct them on the Wikipedia Talk pages? Gerbic and Farley suggest in their interview on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (Episode 438) that they mentor and help new editors so that their edits are not deleted or that they do not run into trouble with exisiting editors and get “bitten” by them. Biting is when a more experienced editor will be seen to “smack down” a more junior editor. They give the distinct impression that they are providing a support structure that is missing from Wikipedia and without it there is no way for editors to learn the ropes which is patently untrue. Wikipedia provides the Teahouse which is explicitly for newer editors to ask for advice, help and guidance in how to become a more effective and productive Wikipedian. The Teahouse is open and allows editors to converse and interact with a larger group than just those in the immediate skeptical environs.
Wikipedia itself maintains that “While editing Wikipedia, an editor’s primary role is to be a Wikipedian” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest). By having a community that discusses, strategizes and operates away from the open channels of communication of Wikipedia, even if there is no COI, there is very little ability for recourse when such an accusation is levelled.
“Any external relationship – personal, religious, political, academic, financial, and legal – can trigger a conflict of interest. How close the relationship needs to be before it becomes a concern on Wikipedia is governed by common sense. An article about a band should not be written by the band’s manager, and a biography should not be written by the subject’s spouse. But subject-matter experts are welcome to contribute to articles in their areas of expertise, while being careful to make sure that their external relationships in that field do not interfere with their primary role on Wikipedia.” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest)
Many have been quick to dismiss the concerns of the now infamous Sheldrake affair on Wikipedia as simply paranoia on the part of the “psi” community. Sheldrake wrongly accused GSoW of editing his Wikipedia page in a manner that he and his supporters deemed to be an attack. These edits, conducted by Wikipedians that GSoW claim not to be among their number, were seen to be aggressive, with some editors appearing to camp on the page monitoring all edits and reverting many of edits of Sheldrake supporters. Gerbic and Farley discuss this incident during their interview on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Coyne gives a good overall synopsis here. There is an undeniable fact that, in eschewing the talk pages and discussions on Wikipedia (not entirely but in part), the GSoW is unable to fully defend themselves against such accusations. Unless they open up their forum or abandon it in favour of the talk pages of Wikipedia, the “other side” of the skeptical debate will always have cause to question the motivations and actions of the GSoW. This can only exasperate further the contention that skeptics are not interested in debate and look to supress or circumvent debate on Wikipedia.
I did ask Gerbic following her talk at QED about the possibility, that due to the use of this secret forum, there is an inherent agenda within their content? She answered citing that everyone will have an agenda on Wikipedia, saying something along the lines that people who like butterflies will edit articles on butterflies. I would say that that is more of a bias and the fact that people will gravitate to content that interests them or they think they have an element of expertise in. An agenda, however, can see large amounts of articles getting attention that could be perceived as lop-sided. The fact that Wikipedia advocates that “dog lovers should edit about cats” (User:Charles Matthews/Conflict of interest) illustrates that we should actually look to edit and contribute to articles that you have no stake hold in. Gerbic’s use of terminology such as “our” articles and her “empire” in interviews and talks, whilst no doubt meant in a light hearted fashion do not help to hold up the GSoW as a force for good, unprejudiced information on Wikipedia.
My main concern is put very succinctly within Wikipedia’s article on COI:
“Campaigning:Activities regarded by insiders as simply “getting the word out” may appear promotional or propagandistic to the outside world. If you edit articles while involved with campaigns that engage in advocacy in the same area, you may have a conflict of interest.” (Wikipedia:Conflict of interest)
I don’t think, that as a larger community, we are thinking about these activities with the requisite critical approach. As it is getting our word out and it is viewed by the community, to use Gerbic’s words, as “good stuff” we seem to be ignoring the problems we could be generating for ourselves further down the line. The “good stuff” she ensured me the group was generating away from the open environment of Wikipedia could be seen by others as furthering the skeptical agenda or enforcing a form of censorship on other articles. The interpretation of the GSoW’s actions, rightly or wrongly (as it is in secret we do not know fully), could be seen as “attempts to improperly influence Wikipedia content” (Wikipedia:Expectations and norms of the Wikipedia community).
In answering questions at QED she admitted that when the group operated exclusively on Wikipedia, it became “dormant”, implying that there was lack of discussion or engagement through the talk pages. It is this lack of engagement that meant they don’t seem to have engaged directly with the extant WikiProject Skepticism. There are many WikiProjects that focus on biographies, certain countries or locations, or subject areas. WikiProject Skepticism is “dedicated to creating, improving, and monitoring articles related to Scientific skepticism, including articles about claims related to science and philosophy which are contrary to the current body of scientific evidence, or which involve the paranormal” (Wikipedia:WikiProject Skepticism). Many of you may be familiar with the banners that are associated with such initiatives within Wikipedia that are used to highlight to the whole Wikipedia community that certain articles are being earmarked for development or to draw more editors into a project. The Talk page for the Edinburgh Skeptics is a good example of this as it falls under both the Skepticism and Edinburgh WikiProjects.
Gerbic states that there is a lot of overlap in the members of this WikiProject and the members of GSoW. She does make a point that it could be a good thing to have different groups tackling the same content from different angles. However I think the difference is more fundamental. As I quoted above the WikiProject Skepticism focuses on the actual science and monitoring pages of to do with alternative medicine or other pseudo sciences. GSoW, along with Gerbic’s other project, We’ve Got Your Wiki Back, focus on what she calls “our skeptical spokespeople”. Here the group identify, edit or develop many pages of these notable skeptics or atheists, such as Nate Phelps, Brian Dunning and Rachel Dunlop. Again we stumble upon the problem of conflict of interest. During her QED lecture, Gerbic outlines how the group target the pages of skeptics that may be featured in the main stream news and edit the pages to anticipate a peak in traffic. The group did this with Nate Phelps’ page in anticipation of his father, Fred Phelps, recent passing. This skirts a line of using Wikipedia as a promotional tool for skepticism and that kind of strategizing can be painted in a very negative light. It is difficult to know from the content of her lectures, but there may be a further issue as to how these page are being identified, as if one of these notable skeptics are bringing their own pages to the attention of GSoW that is a very definite conflict of interest. For example, I have gotten to know the group behind the Merseyside Skeptics over the years, if one of them was to mention, in passing, something that they would like changed about their Wikipedia page(s) it is a conflict of interest for me to change them. This is because I know them, I actively support much of what they do and in general I think they should have a higher profile. Distinct from this would be me editing the page of someone like Simon Singh, I don’t have a personal relationship with him, and whilst I support his activism, there is no way that he could directly of indirectly influence what I edit on any pages relating to him. It is this fine line that many editors struggle with on Wikipedia and it is an issue when it comes to maintaining the neutral point of view the encyclopaedia strives for in all its content.
In conclusion, I am not advocating for the GSoW to stop what they are doing, but to perhaps reassess and reflect on how and why they are doing it and the implications it could have the skeptical community everywhere. As a community our actions should be open for all to see, so that they are above reproach. Only then can we stand behind the “good” information on Wikipedia and start to build relationships with the very people we hope to engage with and hopefully inform.