Insider Corruption at Wikipedia

Diego Azeta
7 December 2015

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In the introductory lecture of my strategic management course, I suggested a variety of sources of information useful to undergraduates when conducting research for their upcoming term projects. Among those of a general nature I mentioned Wikipedia, the open-access Internet encyclopedia, because of the topical and background information it provides on companies and industries, material regularly employed in strategy analysis and formulation. One day a student politely questioned if Wikipedia was indeed a reliable reference.

The student’s misgiving was provoked by reports of abuse at Wikipedia by unscrupulous contributors who doctored entries and even created fraudulent articles to promote their petty interests. These deception problems originated because Wikipedia accepts contributions from basically anyone, most being submitted pseudonymously. Yet this policy is not as alarming as it may seem at first blush, for their radical approach to the collection, redaction, and flash communication of codified knowledge is the key to the astonishing growth of the Wikipedia project and the revolutionary changes that transformed the formerly staid, paper-based encyclopedia industry into a vibrant aggregation of websites. Even tech giant Microsoft, which had secured publishing rights to the contents of three prestigious titles for a fistful of dollars and possessed formidable economic might, was driven to surrender the field pronto to the new interloper in town, one with no cash or formal organization to speak of. Unheard of. Careful there with that rolling tumbleweed, pardner. Prickly.

Moreover, the extraordinarily successful Wikipedia phenomenon presents a serious challenge to conventional economic wisdom, since long-established encyclopedia publishers were quickly snuffed out by a far-flung multitude of incognito volunteers totally unconcerned about pecuniary gain. This form of network collaboration, as of late called crowdsourcing, provides a sobering counterexample to proponents of the doctrine that private property and the profit motive are the only viable means of productive organization in open societies. Bronx cheer, guys. Social systems are more complex and nuanced than what economists ever imagined. I have the highest admiration for the achievements of the visionaries and theglobal community of contributors that made Wikipedia a reality, accomplishments that far exceed assembling and delivering a vast number of articles by the world’s largest repository of free information, the modern equivalent of the ancient Library of Alexandria.

Wikipedia, incidentally, is not the only notable counterexample. In his book, Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? (2009, Ashgate Publishing, 2), Dan O’Sullivan prominently cites (1) the Royal Society, which was initiated by “amateurs who spread their message without any commercial motivation” and (2) the Oxford English Dictionary, whose editors “employed an army of unpaid volunteers”. He discusses the cases in subsequent chapters.

I acknowledged the student’s well-grounded concern before remarking that Wikimedia, the foundation that runs Wikipedia and related wikis, was taking measures to control deceptive practices by rogue contributors. Still, the fact that deliberate falsehoods had easily made it into the text signaled that it was incumbent on the user to ascertain the validity of the information appearing in Wikipedia by cross-checking the contents of its articles with independent sources. Wikipedia was a handy preliminary reference but, taking a cue from the business world, the maxim to keep in mind was caveat lector.

Be that as it may, it was not a satisfactory defense to the observant student’s indictment. Why bother consulting a reference work people know cannot be trusted? The whole point of resorting to an encyclopedia is to obtain specific facts quickly and confidently. Having to cross-check the information defeats the entire purpose of encyclopedias. Yet there was little else one could do at the time short of blacklisting the site altogether. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, wouldn’t such a drastic remedy be worse than the disease? This situation continues to present a quandary to educators and academics.

Among the steps Wikimedia took to thwart deception was the creation of a class of editors selected from Wikipedia’s more active contributors. Editors were given certain powers and software tools to police and enforce policy in wikispace. This ameliorated the external deception problem to some extent. I’ll come back to discuss in more detail the issue of wikieditors.

As for my own work, I had become disillusioned with massive, office-class word processors because of their cumbersome complexity and bloat. Doing ordinary things is sometimes frustratingly complicated. Startup is always a prolonged tedious wait. And never have I had the need to use their powerful enterprise features in my personal work. Come to think of it, not even in my office-related work. So why lug around such behemoths, wasting computing resources and degrading my machine’s performance, when all I really need is a compact, sensible writing app?

I recalled fondly the good old days with my trusty Mac Classic running the refreshingly brisk and amazingly lean WriteNow, possibly the finest e-writer for personal use to see the light of a CRT screen. At least until the coming of Bean. Maybe. In any event, I returned to a post-DOS world when Microsoft finally got it right, more or less, with Windows XP. Price matters, kid. A lot. Take the strategy course and see why. Besides, XP did not intend to alter my work habits with some insanely avant-garde iLife hook. I realize Apple was in dire need of reinventing itself at the time, but I was not keen on relearning the ropes of newfangled productivity software. If it ain’t broke…

Knowing what I was looking for, I embarked on a Web-wide search for the ideal Windows personal writing instrument (IWPWI), bearing in mind that such things don’t exist in the real world and that one must be flexible when it comes to indulging one’s preconceptions. That being said, there was one nonnegotiable requirement for the software to satisfy: it had to export PDF files. No discussion: no PDF, no dice.

Cognizant of its existence, I first examined Jarte and found it delightful. It has become my word processor of choice for creative writing projects, it’s that good. Zero bloat, lots of genuinely useful features, agile, dependable, and gratis! Customizable, too: green text on a black background à la classic IBM PC, if that’s your cup of tea, with silver-gray skins that do away with the white glare —just the thing when burning the midnight oil— and much more. A moderately priced upgrade, Jarte Plus, gets you additional features, pretty much a full-fledged word processor. Now, how close does Jarte come to the IWPWI? About 90 percent, I would say. Impressive. Your percentage may vary although not by much once you come to appreciate its stylish user interfaces (three basic flavors, with further options), which leave some folks somewhat flabbergasted: the interfaces are decidedly avant-garde. But they are practicable and spiffy elegant. Acclimation is quick, though, an hour or so. Frankly, I thought Jarte was as good as it was going to get. Fine with me; I was thrilled with the app. Nonetheless, enjoying the search for its own sake (you become a PeeWee-I guru of sorts), I kept on searching.

After much trekking in the wilderness of office-oriented replacements (apps imitating the big boys down to the requisite bloat), I chanced upon PolyEdit and its gratis doppelgänger, PolyEdit Lite. I read product descriptions and reviews here and there. Some, including two posted on PolyEdit’s website, categorically affirmed that it supported PDF file export. Others said it did not. What is one to do? Why, check it out at Wikipedia, of course, thought I. An army —well, a platoon— of intrepid information gatherers surely must have resolved this contradiction already. And here is what their article said, on or close to 30 June 2015, concerning PDFs:

PolyEdit has been criticized by several reviewers for lacking some standard word processing features such as support for footnotes and PDF export.[1][2][3]

[The reference numbers should be in superscripts, but this site does not support the feature with this particular text editor. It’s not PolyEdit, that’s for sure.]

–Source: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PolyEdit

No dice. I couldn’t care less about footnotes —does anyone care for those things anymore?— but PDF export was sacrosanct. At least until something better comes along. That was the end of PolyEdit for me, methought.

Pop quiz: How do you place a footnote on a webpage?
Answer: As an endnote.

Footnotes are destined to end up as a mere footnote in the history of writing. Now this is important: Wikipedia’s article infobox, the summary sidebar at the top right-hand corner of the page, states that the article referred to Stable Release 5.4 of 7 April 2010 and to Preview Release 6.0 Beta 1 of 25 March 2010. (PolyEdit 6.0 Beta 2 was released on 23 July 2010 but the article was not updated to reflect this.) To put it plainly, the «cautionary» sentence cited above artfully conveys —while avoiding saying so outright— that PolyEdit versions 5.4 and 6.0 Beta 1 (5.4 being the regular distribution version of the software) do not support footnotes nor PDF file export, according to certain reviewers we are meant to take as «knowledgeable». Why, one must ask, are these reviewers to be taken as «knowledgeable» when others, presumably no less knowledgeable —particularly the software developer himself— roundly contradict them? Shouldn’t this discrepancy have been further investigated or, at least, candidly announced to exist? It’s not a good sign when you’re told only half of the story. One should also keep in mind that the seemingly innocuous sentence appears to be noncommittal, as if it were an objective remark, purely factual and devoid of ulterior motives, complete with three authoritative-looking references. Keep in mind chameleons as well.

Continuing with my search, I kept running into reviews lauding PolyEdit as the greatest thing since the Big Bang and insisting it supported PDF export. Enough of reading what others claimed. Time to take the bull by the horns! (Or was it, run just inches away from the horns? The dilemma also arises.) I earnestly downloaded PolyEdit Lite 5.4, installed it on my laptop, and let 'er rip. Alas, I was disappointed to find that under the File menu there were no entries for PDF export. But how could that be? Surely, the developer would not have made the PDF claim if it was not true, for that would only harm his credibility and damage his product’s reputation. No one would intentionally want to do that. —Ahem!— At any rate, the app looked interesting so I took her out for a spin. Then, lo and behold, I discovered PDF export under the Tools/Export menu. Not the usual place to put it in but, hey, there it was and it worked like a charm. Not only that, PolyEdit had the feel of WriteNow: fast, frugal, and fun. Compact and responsive, like a sleek, stick-shift open roadster hugging tight alpine curves. Loaded with features folks actually use without the darned office bloat. Highly customizable. Intelligently designed. With plug-ins and add-ons and dictionaries galore. Truly a world-class word processor. Gives MS Word a run for its money and tops it where it counts! Mean little critter. IWPWI rating: 97+ percent, and I am being conservative. Download PolyEdit and judge for yourself. This thing blows everything else in its class out of the water. (Jarte survives the barrage due to craftsmanship and originality. Elegance counts, amigo.) The question therefore arises: How is it possible I was unaware of this gem? How could it be so indeed.

The Plot Thickens
I knew that I had to go back to Wikipedia and make clear that PolyEdit did indeed support PDF export, for it was the «innocuous sentence» that had led me astray and spurred me to ignore the software altogether. Tricky sentence. That might have happened to other article readers as well. I felt I had to set things straight. Now, I did not delete the suggestively incorrect sentence but instead merely added the following clarification:

But in fact, PolyEdit does support PDF (and HTML) export. Instead of appearing under the FILE menu, however, the options are listed under the TOOLS/EXPORT menu. This departure from the usual practice does not seem to have been documented, leading many observers to conclude that PDF export was not available.

–Source: Wikipedia archive: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=PolyEdit&oldid=669420382

I posted that revision on 30 June 2015 at 21:57, as logged by the Wikipedia automated system. Then at 22:26, 29 minutes later, someone who goes by the pseudonym, TheRedPenOfDoom, deleted (undid) my revision, alleging:

unsourced promotional claim

–Source: Wikipedia archive: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=PolyEdit&oldid=669423268

What! (I also said certain other things, but that is neither here nor there.)

The all but immediate reaction to my post is wrong —and suspect— on so many levels I’ll have to discuss this carefully. Let’s begin with my response to the vigilante censor on 7 July 2015, sometime after I became aware that he had deleted my clarification:

Red, hi. Just noticed that you undid my revision (669420382) that makes clear that PolyEdit does indeed support PDF export, which the unrevised WP article strongly implies PolyEdit does not do. That implication is incorrect. I am a user of PolyEdit Lite and use it, in fact, precisely to make PDFs. The feature works perfectly.
     You stated the following as the reason for undoing my revision: "unsourced promotional claim". First, I am the source of the information, a "primary" source: I have personal, direct knowledge of the fact and made explicit in the revision why it is I believe the article's implication is incorrect. I have no need of citing unreliable secondary sources for my revision, such as the "reviewers" unquestioningly cited in the article itself, the ones who made the mistake to begin with by not properly evaluating the software. Second, my revision is not "promotional". It is a factual correction of incorrect information that appears in the original article, not a promotion for the software. This is important: Wikipedia articles must be, first and foremost, accurate. To leave the article with the mistake untouched is a disservice to Wikipedia and its readers. Correction of errors and invalid information constitutes most of my contributions to WP. Third, my revision is not a "claim", an assertion unsupported by facts, but a factual statement that can easily be proved / disproved by downloading the software, which is freely available on the Web, and following my indications on how to obtain the PDF export option, as stated in the revision. A proven (and readily provable by anyone else) assertion is not a mere "claim". The onus falls on those claiming the contrary (the article's unreliable sources [1][2][3]) to show why it is they believe their glaring mistake to be correct.
     When I was researching PolyEdit for possible adoption, I read the WP article, of course. On reading that it did not support PDF export, I immediately rejected it. However, I kept running into other reviews that vouched for PDF. So I downloaded the software and checked things out for myself. That very same copy is the one I now routinely use every day, including right now. Having been led astray by the WP article, I'm sure you will appreciate why it is I had to go back to correct it.
     I have reinstated the revision in the article. Please feel free to make further revisions if you think they might be required. But please, do not remove the correction about the PDFs. It still smarts to look back and think that I would have missed out on this fine piece of software because of errors in Wikipedia.
— Diego Azeta

–Source: Wikipedia archive: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:TheRedPenOfDoom&oldid=670432952
(at end of page)

I reinstated the revision and The Pen of Doom deleted it again in a trice. So much for online civility. He did send me a «Welcome to Wikipedia» canned message and a separate curt response to my note. There was no reason, one would suppose, for Doom to send me a «welcome message», for I’ve been contributing to Wikipedia since 2006, a full nine years! But according to the «warped logic» so prevalent in many bureaucracies, the «welcome message» was absolutely necessary. For you see, by issuing such a message the issuer marks territory and rank: “I am powerful enough in this g-d place that I can issue welcomes to insignificant participants like you”, which is the intended message. That is typical behavior of people who have been given a modicum of authority in departmentalized organizations, especially where supervision is minimal. You see this a lot with some clerks at the DMV. I’d rather not go into our federal «public servants» and «brutality» police at this time: far too exasperating and gargantuan a problem to adequately discuss here.

As to his personal response, which was not «personal» at all, it was this:

How Wikipedia determines article content Wikipedia content is based on what is verifible as having been published in a reliable source with a reputation for fact checking and editorial oversight and not what Wikipedia editors "know" from their personal experiences. We are not here to provide a promotional platform for products or services.
-- TRPoD aka The Red Pen of Doom 22:51, 7 July 2015 (UTC)

–Source: Wikipedia User talk:Diego Azeta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Diego_Azeta

We? Since when did Wikipedia editors assume ownership of Wikipedia? Answer: Since being empowered as anonymous editors. Yes, yet another brilliant idea in the annals of Homo stupendous. Doom is the designated editor for the PolyEdit article. See https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=PolyEdit&action=info. But who is Doom? No one knows. Ah, so!

Crossed a red line there, Doom of the Red Pen. See if you can tell what it is. In the meantime, let’s cross-check your fatuous bombast:

1. “Wikipedia content is based on what is verifible as having been published in a reliable source with a reputation for fact checking and editorial oversight…”

That rant made The New York Times pop up in my mind as the indisputable standard of reference for “fact checking and editorial oversight” (in the US, at least). I mean, if we’re going to play the game of righteous appearances, then let’s play for keeps. We now have a touchstone with which to measure up the sources Doom champions. Talk is cheap. Let’s see if Doom lives up to his bluster by checking out the references he claims are “verifible” [sic] and “reliable”:

[1] Zaine Ridling. “Word Processor Review”. Donation-Coder.com. Retrieved 2008-01-16.

–Source: Wikipedia article on PolyEdit, References, 8 July 2015:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PolyEdit#References

–Ridling’s review:
http://www.donationcoder.com/Reviews/Archive/WordProcs/

Retrieved in January 2008? What, seven and a half years ago? Was that old review still valid in July 2015? The short answer is: No. And it has not been valid for at least five-odd years. Recall that the Wikipedia infobox declared that the article referred to Stable Release 5.4 of 7 April 2010 and to Preview Release 6.0 Beta 1 of 25 March 2010. You can’t use outdated reviews to bad mouth more recent versions of the software. Any dumbo knows that, Doom. You have to evaluate every version on its own merits. And your article must stick to the versions announced in the infobox. No switcheroos. Tricky guy. That was flagrantly dishonest, Doom. Abhorrent. Don’t do that in the name of Wikipedia. Despite your telling parapraxis, it does not belong to you.

But the review was old news by 2008, since it was first published on 11 June 2007 and revised on 14 June 2007, according to the author. A crafty Ridling did not say which version of PolyEdit he was reviewing, tricky, but it had to be prior to stable 5.0, according to the published PolyEdit release schedule:

  •     23 Jul 2010     -   PolyEdit 6.0 Beta 2 released
  •     07 Apr 2010    -   PolyEdit 5.4 released
  •     25 Mar 2010    -   PolyEdit 6.0 Beta 1 released
  •     18 Jul 2009      -   PolyEdit 5.3 released
  •     31 Mar 2009    -   PolyEdit 5.2 released
  •     05 Mar 2009    -   PolyEdit 5.1 released
  •     28 May 2008    -   PolyEdit 5.0 released

–Source: PolyEdit News: http://polyedit.com/news.html

So Doom’s cited review did not even survey stable version 5.0, which was followed by four other stable releases plus two additional preview releases. This looks real bad, Doom. You should try to avoid making such simplistic mistakes. Makes you look like an incompetent. Not good for your image.

Ah! Here’s a couple of interesting items I found posted on the Web:

PolyEdit has been criticized by several reviewers for lacking some standard word processing features such as support for footnotes and PDF export.[3][4][5] However, support for PDF export (via third-party software) was added in version 5.2 in 2009.

–Source: The Full Wiki: http://www.thefullwiki.org/PolyEdit

PolyEdit has been criticized by several reviewers for lacking some standard word processing features such as support for footnotes and PDF export.[3][4][5] However, support for PDF export (via third-party software) was added in version 5.2 in 2009 and footnotes are supported in their beta version 6.0.

–Source: Sensagent.com: http://dictionary.sensagent.com/polyedit/en-en/

The Full Wiki and Sensagent posts are copies of the Wikipedia PolyEdit article being displayed at the time. No date is given for either posting but The Full Wiki page states that its “related links” were up-to-date as of 16 November 2009. Sensagent’s page has a “Copyright © 2012” notice.

There are to my knowledge six other websites with Wikipedia’s PolyEdit article (as of 28 August 2015), but they show Doom’s doctored version, where the revisions by the conscientious contributors have been deleted.

So other contributors had also caught the PDF export error several years ago and had made the correction in Wikipedia’s PolyEdit article, to no avail. For they suffered the same fate at the hands of Doom, the grim, nameless editor. [A piece of cavernous pipe-organ music is appropriate here. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, is the traditional favorite. (Amy Turk’s harp version and Edson Lopes’ guitar variation are also superb; watch below.) Readers may also wish to imagine the swoosh of Doom’s cape in the dark. Careful with that frenzy of suddenly disturbed bats. Garlic bulbs, crucifixes, holy water, and apotropaic mirrors are found at the cave’s entrance, next to the mallets and stakes.]

Finally, for the purists, Sean Jackson splendidly demonstrates the art Johann Sebastian Bach had in mind on a genuine, cathedral-class pipe organ at St. John's Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut.

Why, one is compelled to ask, is Doom obsessed with feeding patently false information about PolyEdit to Wikipedia (and other sites) readers? Common sense would say that he has a vested interest in doing so. Either that or he is simply nuts. Perhaps both. We’ll get to that shortly, but there still are several more aspects of this increasingly curious story to investigate.

Ridling’s review compares fourteen word processors, most of which are part of an office suite of some sort. It is evident that the author put a lot of effort into this project. His surveys try to point out the plusses and minuses of each piece of software. Unfortunately, when it comes to rendering a judgment on his findings, things take a questionable turn. Specifically, the criteria he has adopted to evaluate the software are applied capriciously, inconsistently, and arbitrarily. As a result, logical coherence goes down the drain. This can best be demonstrated by comparing actual excerpts from Ridling’s review. I will analyze the excerpts by category to facilitate comparisons.

 
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