PhysicsWiki:Conflict of interest

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For practical advice for editors who might have a conflict of interest, see PhysicsWiki:Plain and simple conflict of interest guide.

A PhysicsWiki conflict of interest (COI) is an incompatibility between the aim of PhysicsWiki, which is to produce a neutral, reliably sourced encyclopedia, and the aims of an individual editor. COI editing involves contributing to PhysicsWiki in order to promote your own interests or those of other individuals, companies, or groups. When advancing outside interests is more important to an editor than advancing the aims of PhysicsWiki, that editor stands in a conflict of interest.

COI editing is strongly discouraged. It risks causing public embarrassment to the individuals and groups being promoted (see PhysicsWiki is in the real world), and if it causes disruption to the encyclopedia, accounts may be blocked.

Paid advocacy is receiving financial compensation from a person or organization to use PhysicsWiki to promote the interests of that person or organization. Advocacy of any sort within articles is prohibited by our policies on neutral point of view and what PhysicsWiki is not, and paid advocacy is considered to be an especially egregious form of advocacy. Paid advocates are very strongly discouraged from direct article editing, and should instead propose changes on the talk page of the article in question.

When investigating COI editing, be careful not to reveal the identity of editors against their wishes. PhysicsWiki's policy against harassment takes precedence over this guideline.

PhysicsWiki's position

PhysicsWiki is an encyclopedia, not a vanity press, or forum for advertising or self-promotion. As such it should contain only material that complies with its content policies, and PhysicsWikins must place the interests of the encyclopedia first. Any editor who gives priority to outside interests may be subject to a conflict of interest. Adding material that appears to advance the interests or promote the visibility of an article's author, the author's family, employer, clients, associates or business, places the author in a conflict of interest.

COI editing is strongly discouraged. COI editors causing disruption may be blocked. Editors with COIs who wish to edit responsibly are strongly encouraged to follow PhysicsWiki policies and best practices scrupulously. They are also encouraged to disclose their interest on their user pages and on the talk page of the article in question, and to request the views of other editors. If you have a conflict of interest, any changes you would like to propose that might be seen as non-neutral should be suggested on the relevant talk page or noticeboard.

Paid advocacy is a subset of COI editing (see PW:NOPAY below). Paid advocates are very strongly discouraged from direct article editing, and should instead propose changes on the talk page of the article in question, or on a noticeboard such as PW:COIN. These changes may or may not be acted upon. Paid advocates are also advised to disclose their conflict of interest.

Note that you do not control articles and others may delete them, keep them, or add information that would have remained little-known. While PhysicsWikins generally avoid naming editors and their paymasters, other media routinely do. This has led at times to embarrassment for the organization concerned.

What is conflict of interest?

External relationships; primary and secondary roles

While editing PhysicsWiki, an editor's primary role is to be a PhysicsWikin. Any external relationship (any secondary role) may undermine that primary role, and when it does undermine it, or could reasonably be said to undermine it, that person has a conflict of interest. A judge's primary role as an impartial adjudicator would be undermined by her secondary role as the defendant's wife. A journalist's primary role as a disinterested investigator would be undermined by his secondary role as business partner of the subject of his investigation.

Michael Davis describes the "standard view" of conflict of interest:

A conflict of interest is a situation in which some person P (whether an individual or corporate body) stands in a certain relation to one or more decisions. On the standard view, P has a conflict of interest if, and only if, (1) P is in a relationship with another requiring P to exercise judgment in the other's behalf and (2) P has a (special) interest tending to interfere with the proper exercise of judgment in that relationship.[1]

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 PhysicsWiki 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 PhysicsWiki.

Apparent, potential and actual conflict of interest

An apparent conflict of interest arises when P does not have a conflict of interest, but someone would be justified in thinking P does. Davis writes that apparent conflicts can be as objectionable as potential or actual conflicts, because they cause suspicion, and should therefore be resolved wherever possible.[2] A potential conflict of interest occurs when P has a conflict with respect to a certain judgment, but is not yet in a position where that judgment must be exercised. It becomes an actual conflict of interest when P is in that position.[3]

A PhysicsWikin who owns a notable business would have a potential conflict of interest with respect to the exercise of judgment about that business's article, and an actual conflict of interest if placed in a position where the judgment needed to be exercised (for example, by creating or editing the article, or commenting in a deletion debate about it). He would have an apparent conflict of interest if there were grounds to believe that he was the business owner when in fact he was not.

Biased editing

Conflict of interest is not simply bias.[4] Beliefs and desires alone do not constitute a conflict of interest. On PhysicsWiki, a person's beliefs and desires may lead to biased editing, but biased editing can occur in the absence of a conflict of interest.

What is wrong with conflict of interest?

Davis writes that, according to the standard view, conflict of interest is like "dirt in a sensitive gauge." He identifies three problems with it. First, a person P with a conflict of interest may fail to exercise good judgment; he writes that people with a conflict often "esteem too highly their own reliability," and fail to realize the extent to which the conflict has affected their judgment. Second, if the people relying on P do not know that she has a conflict of interest, P is betraying their trust by allowing them to believe that her judgment is more reliable that it is. Third, even if P does inform those who rely on her that she has a conflict of interest, thereby removing the moral problem, the technical problem will remain, namely that P will be less competent that she would otherwise be, and in addition may bring the reputation of others, including her profession, into disrepute.[5]

Escape, disclosure or management

Davis suggests that there are three ways in which a person with a conflict of interest might approach it:

  1. it can be escaped by recusal, whereby P removes herself from one of the competing relationships;
  2. it can be disclosed to anyone who relies on P's judgment, so that they can decide whether to remove P, or seek a second opinion wherever P has exercised her judgment; and
  3. it can be managed, with or without disclosure – for example, P might ask people to watch closely when she does anything where her judgment could be affected by the conflict.[6]

Whether to recuse, disclose or manage depends on the alternative courses of action available, how serious the conflict is, the privacy implications of disclosure, and what the consequences would be of exercising compromised judgment.[6]

Categories of COI on PhysicsWiki

Overview

Policy shortcuts:

Paid editing is the practice of accepting money to edit PhysicsWiki. Paid advocacy, that is, being paid to promote something or someone on PhysicsWiki, is a subset of paid editing. If you intend to participate in paid editing, transparency and neutrality are key. Editing in a way that biases the coverage of PhysicsWiki or that violates our core policies is not acceptable.

The act of accepting money or rewards for editing PhysicsWiki is not always problematic. There may be benign examples of editors being paid – for example, a university asking you to write up its warts-and-all history. The reward board, a place where editors can post incentives, financial or otherwise, is another benign example. This is a transparent process, and the goal is usually to raise articles to featured or good article status. But be wary of editors there asking you to make edits that challenge your sense of neutrality.

Policy shortcuts:

If either of the following applies to you:

  1. you are receiving monetary or other benefits or considerations to edit PhysicsWiki as a representative of an organization (whether directly as an employee or contractor of that organization, or indirectly as an employee or contractor of a firm hired by that organization for public relations purposes), or
  2. you expect to derive monetary or other benefits or considerations from editing PhysicsWiki (for example, by being an owner, officer, or other stakeholder of an organization; or by having some other form of close financial relationship with a topic you wish to write about),

then you are very strongly discouraged from editing PhysicsWiki in areas where those external relationships could reasonably be said to undermine your ability to remain neutral.

If you have a financial connection to a topic – including, but not limited to, as an employee, owner or other stakeholder – you are advised to refrain from editing articles directly, and to provide full disclosure of the connection. You may use the article talk pages to suggest changes, or the {{request edit}} template to request edits. Requested edits are subject to the same editorial standards as any other, and may not be acted upon.

The writing of "puff pieces" and advertisements is prohibited.

Copyrights, licensing and paid editing

As a reminder, unless specified otherwise, content created while under employment are typically considered Work-for-hire and the copyrights assigned to the employer. Editors in the employ of a third party are reminded that any material they contribute to PhysicsWiki in this capacity becomes irrevocably licensed under the terms of both a Creative Commons-Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 license as well as the GNU Free Documentation License, and encouraged to clarify with their employers that they are fully aware of this fact before contributing.

Specifically, any contribution, including talk page comments, can be freely copied, modified, deleted, reproduced, altered and quoted by third parties for both commercial and non-commercial use with the sole requirement that these contributions be properly attributed to their author on PhysicsWiki.

Covert advertising: 2012 German court ruling

In May 2012 the Munich Oberlandesgericht ruled that if a company or its agents edit PhysicsWiki with the aim of influencing customers, the edits constitute covert advertising, and as such are a violation of European fair trading law (see the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive). The ruling stated that readers cannot be expected to seek out user and talk pages to find editors' disclosures about their corporate affiliation. The case arose out of a claim against a company by a competitor over edits made to the article Weihrauchpräparat on the German PhysicsWiki. The judgment can be read here.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK reached a similar decision in June 2012 in relation to material about Nike on Twitter. The ASA found that the content of certain tweets from two footballers had been "agreed with the help of a member of the Nike marketing team." The tweets were not clearly identified as Nike marketing communications, and were therefore in breach of the ASA's code.[7]

Legal antagonists

If you are involved in a court case, or you are close to one of the litigants, you should not write about the case, or about a party or law firm associated with the case. Even a minor breach of neutrality in an article that is before the court could cause real-world harm.

Writing about yourself and people you know

Policy shortcuts:

You should not create or edit articles about yourself, your family or your close friends. If you or they are notable enough, someone else will create the article. You should also avoid writing about yourself or people you know in articles on other topics. This includes people with whom you could reasonably be said to have an antagonistic relationship in real life. If you have a personal connection to a topic or a person, (such as being an employee, familial ties, or other relationship), you are advised to refrain from editing articles directly, and to provide full disclosure of the connection.

An exception to editing an article about yourself or someone you know is made if the article contains defamation or a serious error that needs to be corrected quickly. If you do make such an edit, follow it up with an email to PW:OTRS, PhysicsWiki's volunteer response team, or ask for help on PW:BLPN, our noticeboard for articles about living persons.

Citing yourself

Policy shortcuts:

Using material you have written or published is allowed within reason, but only if it is relevant, conforms to the content policies, including PW:SELFPUB, and is not excessive. Citations should be in the third person and should not place undue emphasis on your work. When in doubt, defer to the community's opinion.

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.

Self-promotion

Policy shortcuts:

Conflict of interest often presents itself in the form of self-promotion, including advertising links, personal website links, personal or semi-personal photos. Examples include links that point to commercial sites and to personal websites, and biographical material that does not significantly add to the clarity or quality of the article.

Advice for editors who may have a conflict of interest

Policy shortcuts:
PhysicsWiki's Law of Unintended Consequences

If you write about yourself, your group or your company, once the article is created, you have no right to control its content, or to delete it outside the normal channels. Content is irrevocably added with every edit. If there is anything publicly available on a topic that you would not want to have included in an article, note that it will probably find its way there eventually.

Non-controversial edits

Editors who may have a general conflict of interest are allowed to make certain kinds of non-controversial edits (but note PW:NOPAY above). They may:

  1. remove spam and revert unambiguous vandalism,
  2. remove content that clearly violates the biography of living persons policy,
  3. fix spelling and grammatical errors,
  4. revert or remove their own COI edits,
  5. make edits where there is clear consensus on the talk page (though it is better to let someone else do it), and
  6. add reliable sources, especially when another editor has requested them (but note the advice above about the importance of using independent sources).

If the article you want to edit has few involved editors, consider asking someone at the talk page of a related Wikiproject for someone to make the change.

If another editor objects for any reason, then it's a controversial edit. Such edits should be discussed on the article's talk page.

Photographs and media files

Those with a potential conflict of interest are encouraged to upload good-quality digital media files that are appropriately licensed for PhysicsWiki and that improve our coverage of a subject. For more information, follow the instructions at Commons. In some cases, the addition of digital media files to an article may be a non-controversial edit that editors with a conflict of interest can make directly; however editors should exercise discretion and rely on Talk pages when images may be controversial or promotional. If the addition of an image is challenged by another editor, it was not uncontroversial.

Cultural-sector professionals

Policy shortcut:

Museum curators, librarians, archivists, and similar are encouraged to help improve PhysicsWiki, or to share their information in the form of links to their resources. If a link cannot be used as a reliable source, it may be placed under further reading or external links if it complies with the external links guideline. Bear in mind that PhysicsWiki is not a mirror or a repository of links, images, or media files. For more information, see PhysicsWiki:Advice for the cultural sector.

Shared accounts

Do not create a shared organizational account or use the name of the organization as the account name. The account is yours, not your employer's. It is recommended that such editors declare their affiliation on their user pages.

Declaring an interest

Some editors declare an interest in a particular topic area. The benefits of this are that most editors will appreciate your honesty and may try to help you; you lay the basis for requesting help from others to post material for you, or to review material you wish to post yourself, and public relations professionals may be required to abide by code of ethics, such as the GA code of ethics or PRSA code of ethics. The disadvantage of declaring your interest is that people outside PhysicsWiki, such as reporters, may identify you and generate negative publicity for you, your group or your company. Some COI declarations have the effect of announcing your real name (see PW:REALNAME). Do not publicly declare an interest if this could put you at harm in the real world, e.g., from stalkers.

How to handle conflicts of interest

Noticeboards and templates

The first approach should be direct discussion of the issue with the editor, referring to this guideline. If persuasion fails, incidents may be reported on the conflict of interest noticeboard (PW:COIN), and users may be warned with the {{uw-coi}} user warning template. Conflict of interest is not in itself a reason to delete an article, though other problems with the article arising from a conflict of interest may be valid (see criteria for deletion).

If you are sure that an editor is violating this guideline, relevant article talk pages may be tagged with {{Connected contributor}}, and the article itself may be tagged with {{COI}}. COI allegations should not be used as a "trump card" in disputes over article content.

Avoid outing

PhysicsWiki places importance on the ability of editors to edit pseudonymously. When investigating COI editing, the policy against harassment takes precedence and requires that PhysicsWikins must take care not to reveal the identity of editors against their wishes. Instead, examine editors' behavior and refer to PhysicsWiki:Checkuser.

Importance of civility

During debates on articles' talk pages and at articles for deletion, disparaging comments may fly about the subject of the article/author and the author's motives. These may border on forbidden personal attacks, and may discourage the article's creator from making future valuable contributions.

Blocks

Accounts that appear to be single-purpose accounts that exist for the sole or primary purpose of promotion (e.g., of a person, company, product, service, website, or organization), in apparent violation of this guideline, should be warned and made aware of this guideline. If the same pattern of editing continues after the warning, the account may be blocked.

See also

Article
Policies, guidelines and official pages
Information page
Wikiprojects
Essays

These represent the opinions of individual editors:

Historical items, including failed proposals, former policies, obsolete essays, etc.

These items and the discussions surrounding them may show how PhysicsWiki consensus has changed over time. They may also include "good ideas" for editing behavior that go "above and beyond" official policies.

Notes

  1. Michael Davis, "Introduction," in Michael Davis and Andrew Stark (eds.), Conflict of Interest in the Professions, University of Oxford Press, 2001, p. 8.
  2. Davis, op cit, p. 18.
  3. Davis, op cit, p. 15.
  4. Davis, op cit, p. 12.
  5. Davis, op cit, pp. 11–12.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Davis, op cit, pp. 13–15.
  7. Sweney, Mike. "Nike becomes first UK company to have Twitter campaign banned", The Guardian, 20 June 2012.

Further reading

Articles
  • Carson, Thomas L. "Conflicts of Interest and Self-Dealing in the Professions: A Review Essay," Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, January 2004 (pp. 161–182), p. 168.
  • Davis, Michael. "Conflict of Interest Revisited", Business & Professional Ethics Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 21–41.
  • Luebke, Neil R. "Conflict of Interest as a Moral Category", Business & Professional Ethics Journal, Vol. 6, 1987, pp. 66–81.
  • McDonald, Michael. "Ethics and Conflict of Interest", The W. Maurice Young Center for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia.
External links