Ethics of Wikipedia Research

Ethics of Editing

The election results on this Wikipedia page are wrong, I can tell. As we collect data for the Social Election Prediction Project, I am reviewing many a Wikipedia political party page and every so often I see mistakes. For this project I am checking that the page exists, ensuring that the page existed before the date of the election so that a voter could have used it to find out political information beforehand. I am not, it should be noted, checking for accuracy of information. Yet sometimes there are errors that glare. As an occasional Wikipedia editor and a stickler for correcting errors, I feel a strong urge to correct the mistakes I come across. Yet, as an academic looking at this page in a research context I am hesitant to alter that which I am studying. What are the ethical boundaries for academics conducting research on Wikipedia?

In 2012, Okoli et al. wrote an overview of scholarship on Wikipedia, a huge and varied field, totaling almost 700 articles in peer-reviewed journals in disciplines ranging from Computer Science, to Economics to Philosophy (Okoli et al, 2012).  The Okoli article, titled, “The people’s encyclopedia under the gaze of the sages: A systematic review of scholarly research on Wikipedia,” is comprehensive on the subject of all Wikipedia research up to that date, but does not deal extensively with ethics. The ethical issues that are addressed are those that are linked with privacy concerns of studying the Wikipedia community. In their article on using wikis for research, Gerald Kane and Robert Fishman note that while all Wikipedia data is available under General Public License, or GPL, and so can be used without copyright concerns, researchers should still be cognizant of the privacy of Wikipedia editors (Kane & Fishman, 2009). For example many of the editors Kane and Fishman interacted with were hesitant to connect their real world identity with that of their identity on Wikipedia, and so did not want to conduct conversations through email or any other platform.

Of course, acting as a part of a community is not always a research taboo. Participatory action research, a method that arose from psychologist’s Kurt Lewin’s action research, emphasizes collaboration between researchers and the communities at hand. However, while participatory action research could apply for someone editing a Wikipedia article, studying the behavior of other editors and working with other editors to define the study, Wikipedia editors are not the subjects of the Social Election Prediction Project. The Social Election Prediction Project is a study of Wikipedia as an informational object. The subjects are voters seeking information before an election, and Wikipedia is simply a tool to help us measure their information-seeking behavior.

The ethical ambiguities of researching Wikipedia are just a symptom of Web 2.0., where everyone is a potential contributor. The same question could be asked of researchers studying Twitter for example, should they tweet? It depends on the objective of the study. For the Social Election Prediction Project, I have not edited any Wikipedia page that I am looking at for research purposes. While I could not alter the outcome for this specific project as we are looking at past elections and so historic page views, in some small way, improving political Wikipedia pages could make more people turn to Wikipedia for political news. However, I will continue to do minor edits for the Wikipedia pages I read in my own time. While not acting as researcher, I can be collaborator and reader both.

Kane, G., & Fichman, R. (2009). The Shoemaker’s Children: Using Wikis for Information Systems Teaching, Research, and Publication. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 33(1).
Okoli, C., Mehdi, M., Mesgari, M., Nielsen, F. Å., & Lanamäki, A. (2012). The People’s Encyclopedia Under the Gaze of the Sages: A Systematic Review of Scholarly Research on Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Papers.cfm?abstract_id=2021326
This post has been cross-posted to the Oxford Internet Institute’s Elections and the Internet blog.
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