Before being indefinitely blocked, FergusM1970 made more than 4600 edits on the English Wikipedia, spread over eight years. In the last two years, he was paid to edit several articles for clients that included the Venezuelan energy company Derwick Associates; Fergus maintains that this was his only step into paid advocacy, rather than paid editing, a distinction that the Signpost has drawn attention to previously. Fergus was banned in December 2014 amid allegations of advocating for pay on behalf of e-cigarettes. We spoke with him about his experiences.
The ed17: How long did you edit for pay on Wikimedia sites?
FergusM1970: I edited for pay for around two years—pretty much since I started freelancing. It's a very common category of freelance job now.
Ed: Is FergusM1970 your first account? If not, how have you evaded scrutiny by the English Wikipedia's checkuser tool?
Fergus: Yes, it was my main Wikipedia account. To be honest it never occurred to me to use a different account for paid edits; I wasn't aware that paid editing was an issue, as Wikipedia's rules are so tortuous that no normal editor actually bothers to learn most of them. That's why it's so easy for POV-pushers to use them as a club to beat editors with.
Ed: Do you only operate on the English Wikipedia, and how many articles have you been compensated for editing?
Fergus: I only operated on the English Wikipedia. I can't actually remember how many articles I was paid to edit; it was a pretty small percentage of my freelance writing work. Between a dozen and 20.
Ed: To broach a potentially taboo topic area, how much do you charge clients for creating or maintaining articles?
Fergus: It would depend on what the client was looking for. To edit an existing article, anywhere between $50 and $100. To create a new one, $75–$150 depending on length. I'd charge extra to watchlist it, generally $75–$100 for three months. In that time I'd patrol edits and attempt to deal with any attempt to remove the article.
Ed: Have you consistently disclosed when you were editing for pay?
Fergus: No, I didn't disclose that because up to the point where I started getting (frankly pretty unpleasant) emails from (Redacted) I wasn't aware I was supposed to.
Ed: If a client's preferred topic is not notable under Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, how do you proceed?
Fergus: Early on I had a couple of articles deleted because they didn't meet WP:N. Later I started being a lot more discriminating and would tell clients up front that the article wouldn't stick. Often they asked if putting out a press release would help; I told them no, it wouldn't.
Ed: Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, has endorsed a so-called "bright line", which "is simply that if you are a paid advocate, you should disclose your conflict of interest and never edit article space directly. You are free to enter into a dialogue with the community on talk pages, and to suggest edits or even complete new articles or versions of articles by posting them in your user space." Is this a viable option for paid advocates?
Fergus: I don't think paid advocacy is acceptable at all. I only did it once, because I was financially quite squeezed at the time, and felt distinctly uncomfortable about it.
Ed: In your opinion, how should the Wikimedia sites deal with paid editing and advocacy? Where should the proverbial line in the sand be drawn?
Fergus: I don't see any problem whatsoever with paid editing. As long as the article meets the notability and neutral point of view policies, what does it matter? Advocacy is another thing entirely. Paid advocacy should not be permitted, as it's POV-pushing by its very nature. I also have serious concerns about advocacy by people who may not be paid directly but have a conflict of interest, such as a lot of what happens around the WP:MED cabal and its efforts to spread its influence into non-medical articles.