By Gregory Kohs
The blog post, written by WMF employee Katy Love, described how the WMF had hired a consulting firm called The LaFayette Practice to write a report that in turn determines that its own client, the WMF, is the largest “Participatory Grantmaking” fund in the world. You may never have heard of this phrase, participatory grantmaking, because (according to Google Books and Google Scholar) prior to about 2009, the phrase had never been written in any book or any academic paper. It is a neologism. Indeed, if you search Google for “participatory grantmaking”, out of the top 10 results, eight of them are either written by or are about the LaFayette Practice, and the number 1 search result is Wikipedia’s article about the term, written by WMF employees who are clients of the LaFayette Practice. It is safe to say that practically speaking, the LaFayette Practice “owns” the trade term “participatory grantmaking”, and the Wikimedia Foundation solidified the consultant’s lock on that term by authoring a Wikipedia article about it.
When critics attempted to leave a comment on the WMF blog post, their comments were rejected. When a supporter left a glowing comment, though, it was accepted. Key executives at the WMF, which often describes itself as “open” and “transparent”, refused to comment for this reporter, as did the WMF employees who wrote the Wikipedia article in question. Attempted contacts with the LaFayette Practice also went without reply. One might conclude that the Wikimedia Foundation and its consulting firm were circling the wagons. One journalist, Dan Murphy, who read over the LaFayette report, commented: “I find no discussion of effectiveness of spending relative to what is claimed to be their core mission: Education and better encyclopedias. It’s all about ‘surfacing’ and awesome Wikipedians and ‘movement building’ and being ‘impactful’ (ugh).”
Then, late in the day on Friday, the WMF published an editor’s note on Love’s blog post. It read:
“The Wikipedia article on Participatory Grantmaking was written in part by Wikimedia Foundation staff in their capacity as Wikimedia volunteer editors. This was done on their own time, using their personal editor accounts, with the intent to share information with the larger philanthropic sector about a practice that is very much aligned with wikiculture. The article, which meets Wikipedia policies and guidelines, was developed based largely (but not exclusively) on the original report by the Lafayette Practice about participatory grantmaking, which was not funded by WMF. The study cited in the article did not include the Wikimedia Foundation. The subsequent report about the WMF’s participatory grantmaking approach was commissioned by Foundation in the months following the original report and is not referenced in any version of the Wikipedia article.”
Given that the WMF employees had authored about 98% of the article, describing their authorship as “in part” was rather disingenuous; but, to its credit, the WMF has again changed the addendum to read “primarily” rather than “in part”. What remains suspicious, though, is the claim that the article writing was done on employees’ “own time” in a “personal” capacity. The edit history of the article doesn’t lie (although one must rely upon an archived version — at Wikipedia, the edit history has been deleted, along with article itself, five days after the first appearance of the blog post you are now reading.) The article’s initial author was a Wikimedia Foundation employee who was editing Wikipedia on a typical Wednesday workday at 10:25 AM, then at 1:00 PM, and again at 1:09 and 1:39 PM. The substantial amount of content he had created is highly unlikely to have been produced only on personal break time. Another WMF employee came along to touch up the article at 4:15 PM. Can we believe the WMF when it says that the article meets Wikipedia policies and guidelines, when it is now plastered with warnings to readers that the article relies largely on a single source, that it may contain promotional material, and that a major contributor has a close connection to the subject?
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales was given an opportunity to respond to the ethical questions presented by this scenario, but as is his custom, he deflected away the query. Wales said, “As usual, I find hypothetical questions like this to be unsatisfactory. Please give actual information so that people can evaluate it.”
This article originally appeared in the February 21 edition of Examiner.com.