Empower the Reader

The citation system for Wikipedia is effective because readers know where the information comes from. That means that they are empowered to judge the credibility of the information for themselves.

Recently, CNET contributor, Violet Blue, wrote that a BP representative has been using the “talk page” on the BP Wikipedia article to supply content that editors can use on the Wikipedia page. This representative claims that the text is “verified by various subject matter experts within the company.” Subsequently, Wikipedia editors copied-and-pasted this text into the BP article.

Various Wikipedia editors then began discussing the situation because readers of the article had no way of knowing that the content came directly from BP and some editors felt that this undermined the credibility and authenticity of the content.

What’s the Role of Large Companies?

In her piece, Violet Blue implies that this is a misuse of Wikipedia. I disagree.

The article suggests that BP was deliberately trying to mislead Wikipedia readers and skirting Wikipedia rules. Certainly, BP could do a few things to improve the situation, but they followed Wikipedia’s rules and industry best practices to provide their perspective without directly editing the article.

Wikipedia’s goal is to gather information and use the community to validate it. It’s the ultimate crowdsourcing experiment. In my opinion, that information should include perspectives from companies, as they have uniquely valuable information.

BP Was Transparent

While many other companies have directly edited their pages without disclosing any relationship at all, BP didn’t take this route. Instead, they provided their perspective and left it to the community to decide whether or not to include that perspective in the article.

The BP representative, “Arturo at BP” has been transparent in stating he is a representative of BP and that the content he is posting is official content from the company. He did not directly edit the Wikipedia page, but rather recommended the content and other editors posted it to the page. He did not deliberately mislead the reader. However, confusion about the process has led some readers to believe he did.

Opportunity for Clarity

While I believe that BP was transparent, there are three things they could have done differently to ensure that the readers of the Wikipedia article knew the source of the information. Taking these steps would have ensured from the start that readers knew BP was the source of the content, and would have prevented any ensuing controversy.

1. Publish the statements elsewhere – Wikipedia relies on linking to sources on the web. BP should have published the statements in a blog, news release or other third party site. The community editors could have then included these links as citations to make it clear that the content was from BP.

2. Make the “as is” copy transparent – BP could write the “suggested copy” to be clear that it’s from BP so that even if it is copied and pasted “as is,” it will still be clear that it’s BP’s perspective. For example, they could say, “According to BP scientists…”

3. Encourage citations – The BP representative could also have encouraged the editors to use quotations to indicate a direct quote from a BP representative or otherwise encouraged the editors to disclose the information was from a BP representative.

Defending the Brand

Ultimately, having people from within large companies participate in Wikipedia adds value by bringing in expert perspectives, and companies have a right to defend their brands and correct misinformation. Suggesting content through the “talk page” seems to be an effective and transparent way to accomplish both goals.

Check out the debate over on Wikipedia. What do you think about the situation?