Wikimedia Trustee: Wikipedia ‘Censors’ Medical Articles for Drug Industry

Dozens of prescription medicine bottles in a jumble. This collection of pill bottles is symbolic of the many medications senior adults and chronically ill people take.
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Last month Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, sanctioned a member of the Board of Trustees for the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns the site. The board member, Dr. James Heilman, was barred from edits related to drug pricing in medical articles following disputes with other Wikipedia editors about the propriety of such edits. Heilman, an ER doctor, argued for the inclusion of drug prices in articles and accused the American drug industry of seeking to conceal such details.

Elected to the board by users of Wikipedia and related sites, Heilman has been a prominent and controversial board member over the years, including having previously been removed following a dispute with other trustees.

Medical articles on Wikipedia are subject to some of the highest standards for sourcing on the site. Where Wikipedia articles on most topics permit using news media, guidelines for medical topics demand users rely on high-level academic literature for medical claims. Policies also discourage including pricing information in articles stating “Wikipedia is not a sales catalog” in a policy essentially unchanged for ten years. Editors who believe drug pricing should be incorporated into articles as much as possible, such as Heilman, have brushed up against these standards yet pushed their efforts over the opposition of other editors.

Heilman, an emergency room doctor, has argued inclusion of pricing information was important for informing people in developing countries and has also expressed frustration with drug companies he claimed did not want the real pricing information known. Others have questioned whether it is possible to include any consistent price for particular drugs. In one discussion, after an editor suggested Heilman was cherry-picking sources on drug prices to favor his view about the feasibility of including specific drug prices in articles, Heilman accused the editor of “pushing the industry position” in an effort to “censor” Wikipedia.

Part of Heilman’s suspicions about drug industry involvement in Wikipedia may be informed by his efforts against paid editing on Wikipedia, a common problem on the site, as he has spoken to media about past instances where suspected drug industry employees edited articles to favor their products or services over those of rivals. Heilman has also previously raised concerns about academic literature relying on Wikipedia, having previously exposed plagiarism of Wikipedia in medical textbooks. Studies suggest Wikipedia can shape scientific literature and Breitbart has previously reported on media and academic textbooks copying extensively from Wikipedia’s biased article about the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming.

One of Heilman’s allies in his campaign to include drug pricing information in articles is editor “QuackGuru” who sought to include in Wikipedia’s style guide on medical articles a passage stating: “The pharmaceutical industry has tried to conceal medication prices because of their continuing legal cases in the United States.” In these discussions, Heilman and QuackGuru have often cited the World Health Organization stance on drug pricing to argue for the inclusion of such information, though others have argued the W.H.O.’s position does not inform encyclopedic coverage of medicinal drugs.

Discussions on having drug pricing information regularly incorporated into articles on medicine have consistently come up inconclusive despite the efforts by Heilman and other advocates of including price information. A prolonged discussion earlier this year found general opposition to including pricing information in the intros of articles on medical drugs and no agreement on whether they should even be included in articles at all without extensive sourcing.

Citing a perceived need for “knowledge equity” on Wikipedia, Heilman has objected to the high sourcing threshold for including drug prices by arguing sources considered reliable on Wikipedia often do not cover pricing information for drugs used in the developing world. Knowledge equity is a buzzword increasingly popular among those who believe Wikipedia’s “neutrality” policy is unfair to “marginalized communities” in the world. The Wikimedia Foundation has committed to “knowledge equity” in its strategic direction and incorporated the term in their recent endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement where they declared there was “no neutral stance” on racial justice.

In spite of discussions discouraging the inclusion of drug pricing information, Heilman and other advocates continued pursuing such inclusion, prompting fights and “edit wars” where editors repeatedly undo each other’s contributions to a page in a disruptive cycle. Due to the persistence of the dispute, one of the site’s administrators with advanced privileges (Heilman himself is also an administrator) brought the matter before the Arbitration Committee. The Committee is a community-elected body charged with resolving persistent and disruptive disputes where editors have engaged in misconduct, though it does not rule on content.

Upon reviewing the conduct of Heilman and others, including QuackGuru, the Arbitration Committee concluded the case by finding Heilman had “repeatedly edit-warred to add or retain pricing information” despite significant opposition and had “contributed to problems in collaborative editing.” QuackGuru was found to have similarly edit-warred and an editor opposed to the inclusion of pricing information was found to have been uncivil. The Committee sanctioned Heilman by prohibiting him from making article edits related to drug pricing. QuackGuru, previously banned from articles about religion and warned for misconduct on vaping articles, was banned from all medical topics.

Given Heilman’s position on the Wikimedia Foundation board, him being sanctioned by the Arbitration Committee is highly abnormal, though not necessarily unprecedented. Leaders in chapter organizations, local community groups affiliated with the Foundation, have previously been sanctioned with one Wikimedia U.K. chairman forced to resign in 2012 after being banned from Wikipedia. Heilman himself is a founder of Wiki Project Med Foundation, a “thematic organization” affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation focused on developing medical content for Foundation-owned sites. Heilman remains an adviser to the group. Some opponents raised Heilman’s ties to the organization and its advocacy related to health information as evidence of an agenda inconsistent with Wikipedia standards.

The drug pricing dispute is not the first time Heilman has faced controversy while serving on the Board of Trustees. First elected in 2015 as one of several community representatives on the board, he was removed months later in what was alleged to have been part of a contentious internal board dispute over secretive plans to create a search engine potentially competing with Google. Heilman was re-elected to the Board in the very next election and played a vital role in calming tensions during last year’s editor revolt after the Foundation banned a veteran Wikipedia administrator in an unprecedented intrusion into the site’s self-governing community. Said administrator’s ban was eventually lifted.

In spite of internal disputes at Wikipedia, associated sites, and its Foundation, all have increasingly pushed a left-wing agenda as observed by the site’s own co-founder. Late May, the same Board of Trustees on which Heilman serves announced it was imposing a “universal code of conduct” on all sites the Foundation owns, including Wikipedia. Much like the “knowledge equity” arguments Heilman raised in the drug pricing dispute, the justification for the code was the need for “diversity” and “inclusion” to make their sites “safe spaces” for all users, terms that increasingly signal an even more aggressive left-wing slant.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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