In a very recent study on “Paid vs. Volunteer Work in Open Source” (PDF), Dirk Riehle and others found that “about 50% of all open source software development has been paid work for many years now and that many small projects are fully paid for by companies.” However, in openly licensed projects outside of the software realm, the co-existance of paid and volunteer contributors is often considered problematic. For example, while paid coding is uncontested and vital for open source software, paid editing in Wikipedia is often seen as a danger to both the project’s neutral point of view and the motivation of unpaid contributors.

How serious the effects of Wikipedian’s skepticism towards paid editing can be was evidenced last week, when the Wikimedia Foundation dismissed Sarah Stierch, one of its most prominent employees, because of paid editing. The current issue of Wikipedia’s community newspaper Signpost is entirely devoted to

the dismissal of Sarah Stierch, whose paid-for editing activities were first revealed in a blog post. This included a screenshot of Stierch’s profile on oDesk, a global clearinghouse for the hiring and management of remote workers. The profile showed that she had been paid US$300 to author a Wikipedia page for an “individual”, along with two billed hours for a “Wikipedia Writer Editor” job that was “in progress”.

On a more general level, paid editing had already been an issue in the German Wikipedia community. Wikimedia Germany, the local Wikimedia chapter organization, had even funded a project on “Grenzen der Bezahlung” (literally: “Limits of Paying”) to discuss and evaluate issues around paid editing. The project was run by Dirk Franke, a long-standing member of the German editing community, who very recently has taken up a position with Wikimedia Germany (unrelated to paid editing). The following interview was conducted in German and Dirk Franke emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, not his new employer.

Dirk Franke (Foto: Tobias Schumann, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Dirk Franke (Foto: Tobias Schumann, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

You have been working on the limits of paid editing in Wikipedia in a project funded by the Wikimedia Foundation. What was your main question? 

Dirk Franke: Actually, the project was funded by the German Wikimedia association, which is legally independent from the focal Wikimedia Foundation. In addition, I have not conducted the project for Wikimedia but rather in the course of a grant program, where members of the community could suggest different projects; I always understood it that way that I was conducting the project for the Wikipedia community and not so much for the chapter association.

The question was more a practical one. Paid editing is both a forseeable problem and a forseeable development. Thus, the question was, how can I encourage the community to think about the issue even before the problem is immediately around the corner and it is in fact to late?

What were your most important findings? 

Dirk Franke: In principle, the community has to make the decision, which fundamental value of Wikipedia is more important: openness or complete non-commerciality. Either Wikipedia is open for anyone, and it is possible to anonymously edit Wikipedia  – then it is virtually impossible to effectively enforce a ban on paid editing. In such a case, the question is not so much how to ban but how to regulate. How can we sensibly steer paid editing and limit it to its non-harmful aspects? Or the community prioritizes to effectively ban paid editing. In that case, it would be impossible to uphold anonymity in the project and Wikipedia would change both in terms of content and socially; the project would not be the same as before.

How is overall sentiment towards paid editing among the Wikipedia community?

Dirk Franke: Whether paid editors are accepted by the community depends to a large degree on factors that paid editors control themselves. Paid editing is more likely to be accepted when the purpose is non-commercial and the author is not also a volunteer or even has a function within Wikipedia. From the community perspective, the ideal case would probably be a non-profit organization, which transparently pays out of their own funds people with expert knowledge, who had not edited Wikipedia before, to contribute non-partisan articles about issues of general interest.

Even today, some tasks are paid in the realm of Wikipedia, for example, developing the wiki software. Why is paying to write articles different?

Dirk Franke: Even today, it is not entirely true that there is no paid editing. Even though paid editing is hardly ever welcomed with joy or approval within the whole Wikiversum, it is rarely completely banned. Nearly all forms of paid editing happen in a grey zone of informal customs, “one-should-not”-rules, and an often renunciatory praxis. But there are forms that are more or less accepted. For example, there are some cases in the English language Wikipedia, where people are paid by cultural heritage institutions to provide content about art and culture. It gets difficult when the articles directly cover the institutions or try to advertise certain issue fields.

In the realm of open source software we have a peaceful co-existance of paid and unpaid contributors (see, for example, the recent study “Paid versus Volunteer Work in Open Source” by Dirk Riehle et al.) – why is this more difficult in the context of Wikipedia?

Dirk Franke: As far as I know, the co-existance of paid and volunteer contributors is not always easy in the field of open source software, either. In Wikipedia, we lack any experience so far with what the potential side-effects could be in general. Many Wikipedia authors perceive themselves as non-commercial or even positioned agains commercialization of knowledge. These Wikipedians often have a very clear and outspoken opinion on the issue. What is more, software and Wikipedia texts differ substantially: the code of a software program probably differs not much with regard from the fact who has paid for it. In Wikipedia there is always the fear that anyone who pays may also want to influence the orientation and neutrality of the text.

The issue of paying is also discussed in the context of the lack of diversity. In her talk “Diversity initiatives that worked in other open communities” (PDF of the Slides) at last year’s Wikipedia Diversity Conference in BerlinValerie Aurora argued that being paid makes it easier for underrepresented groups such as women to contribute. What is your take on this issue?

Dirk Franke: In the short run, payment would probably increase diversity. However, you have to also see how many people are active in Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia, for instance, has a hard core of about 1,000 people, who edit on a daily basis, and another 7,000 people, who stop by multiple times a month. If you wanted to really make a difference with regard to community composition you would have to pay for a large number of persons with respective costs.

What other problems in addition to costs would you expect?

Dirk Franke: Above all, I see two problems. First, would these paid female editors ever be accepted among volunteers or would this rather deepen the problem and lead to a split in the community? Second, how would the currently present female Wikipedians feel, who had been active for years, when suddenly paid editors would be put in front of their noses? Such projects always bear the risk to demotivate year-long volunteers while the effect of the programs immediately vanishes as soon as the funds are depleted.

Looking at the concrete case of Sarah Stierch, what was actually the problem? She was very transparent about her paid editing and has even published the fees on her blog? 

Dirk Franke: I know too little about the details of the case to really give some accurate information on it. The only thing that seems clear to me is that Sarah Stierch must have done something that her superiors at Wikimedia Foundation had not been aware of. Seemingly, these actions were considered important enough to lead to the drawn consequences.

On the public mailing list of the Wikimedia Foundation, some defend Sarah Stierch with the argument that the problem was not paid editing in general but only paid advocacy editing. Is it possible to distinguish between “good” and “bad” cases of paid editing? 

Dirk Franke: As I have already mentioned, there are several factors – openness, content, source of the funds – which increase or decrease the acceptance of paid editing. This is really a continuum from light grey to deep black. For truly good and non-advocacy paid editing a funding source would be necessary that is not connected to any special interests. I think this is quite difficult in praxis.

Erik Möller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, has voiced the idea of a separate non-profit organization, which receives payments and manages contracts to systematically expand Wikipedia coverage, with payment entirely or largely decoupled from specific articles. Could this be a way out?

Dirk Franke: This is at least, as far as I know, a new approach by the Foundation. It would address the content-related problem but it would not solve the social problem that the existence of donation-funded authors might demotivate or even drive away volunteer Wikipedians.

This is the English translation of an interview conducted in German and originally published at