Conflict of Interest & Archives

A fortnight ago a change went through the English Wikipedia’s policies, with relatively little fanfare amongst the Wikipedia community, which has raised quite some excitement and some questions in the cultural sector.

First a description, then two questions for Wikipedians, then four principles for archivists.

It is a change to the Conflict of Interest (CoI) policy. Specifically, an addition was made to the list of exceptions to this policy that allows employees of archives to link to items in their collection. The precise text reads:

Non-controversial edits

Editors who may have a conflict of interest are allowed to make certain kinds of non-controversial edits, such as:

7. Adding pointers to primary sources in archives, special collections or libraries in the Research resources section of an article. Also, adding external links to digitized or digital primary sources or finding aids.

I’m actually surprised that Wikipedia didn’t have this exception to the CoI policy before. To me it seems perfectly sensible that Wikipedia should be a) encouraging professionals with expertise to contribute their knowledge; and b) enabling our readers to take their research further by putting them in touch with the physical archive. Nothing beats the real thing after all!

This change went through with (relatively) little fuss considering that CoI is probably the biggest sin you could possibly be accused of in Wikimedia-land. Neutral POV and non-commerciality are such fundamental things to the Wikipedia community that you are strongly discouraged from editing articles about the company that pays you. However it was thought that people whose job it is to preserve and study our cultural heritage should be allowed to contribute their expertise to Wikipedia too – so long as their contributions are not intended to merely increase the exposure of their organisation.

Wikipedia should include references such as this, which was added (in July last year) in the references section of the article [[William F. Durand]]:

And if someone from Stanford University wants to add that into Wikipedia then IMO they should be encouraged to do so.  [It was actually this addition that started the whole debate that led to the CoI change in the first place – after a quite undesirable biting experience at their userpage here.]

However, Wikipedia should not include links that simply say “[seemingly unrelated archive] has documents about this topic” or even worse “[seemingly random library] has a copy of a book written by this person.” It is concern about this kind of spam-like link that the dissenting Wikipedians were worried about in the debate about whether to add this exception to the CoI policy at all. Wikipedia is not a Linkfarm and there was concern that employees of archives would start to inundate Wikipedia with links to everything in their collection simply to increase the exposure of their organisation.[1] thanks. thanks.

My Questions (for Wikipedians):

However, there are two questions I have raised and I would like people’s input on them.

  1. The exception specifically refers to “archives, special collections or libraries” and I know some museum curators feel that they’ve been intentionally excluded. Was the intention to disallow museum artefacts from being linked to in the same way as archival resources (noting that the line between “museum” and “archive” is often quite blurred)? If so, why? If not, then can I suggest we re-phrase the exception to explain that we mean to allow all “cultural collections institutions” (a.k.a. GLAMs) in this way?
  2. The exception refers to the “research resources” section of the article. Is this a new section that should be added to the end of the article or is this a cover-all term for the Standard appendices such as “external links” and “further reading”? (I’m assuming the latter).

I have asked these questions at the talkpage for the CoI policy here. Please contribute your views.

My suggestions (for archivists):

  • Link to unique, and uniquely relevant, things. Original research material is what this is about. That is, linking to the most important things about a topic which have been preserved. So, if your institution has, for example, the original document (hint hint) written by William Bligh listing the people involved in the [[Mutiny on the Bounty]], then it would be great to include the link to that record in the Wikipedia Article. On the other hand, if your institution has some items in the collection that happened to be written in Paris in 1910, please don’t link them to the article [[Belle Époque]].

page 1 of Bligh's list

  • The link should provide access to material. Link to the actual catalogue record for the item, especially if there is a digitised copy, rather than a generic page that says “[institution] has content about [topic].” It will be of most benefit to the reader if they are taken straight to the item’s record and this requires that the institution’s website has stable URLs, no log-in requirement and a description of the item. If the website doesn’t have these then what value would a link to it provide?
  • Get a personal user account. Register with your own account, it can be a pseudonym, and not with a shared account (WP:NOSHARE) or an account named after your institution (WP:ORGNAME). These policies say that there must be a 1-to-1 correspondence between a user-account and a human.
  • Declare yourself. Place a note on your userpage like this person did.

[1] Whether or not you agree with it, Wikipedia has a “nofollow” tag on all external links as part of its several tools to fight spam – in this case to discourage linkspam. So adding links to an organisation’s website won’t increase Google rankings anyway.

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