Wikipedia, when it began, was a grand exercise in democracy. The idea was for a giant online encyclopedia in which anyone could post information, and if there were mistakes, others would fix them. Crowdsourcing on a global scale would bring out the truth.
But Marcia DiStaso of Penn State University says it doesn't always work, at least not for the 1,300 public relations people she surveyed. They told her 60 percent of Wikipedia entries contained factual errors about their clients' companies, ranging from trivial to highly controversial - and the PR people, being interested parties, felt they could not make corrections.
"Public relations professionals have their hands tied," she said in a telephone interview with ABC News. "They can only make comments on discussion pages suggesting corrections, and wait for the public to reply." Wikipedia's guidelines say that ought to happen in two to five days, but DiStaso said 24 percent of those she surveyed said their requests were never answered.
Meanwhile, she said, a company may be caught in a crisis of public image, and people searching for information on it will go to Wikipedia. "In today's fast-paced society, five days is a long time," she said.
DiStaso, who was a PR person herself before becoming an assistant professor of public relations and communications at Penn State, published her findings in an academic publication, Public Relations Journal. She said she was surprised to find that 25 percent of the PR people she surveyed had never looked at Wikipedia articles that might affect companies they represent.
Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia, has proposed that there be a "bright line" that people with a vested interest in a subject ought not to cross.
Jay Walsh, director of communications for the Wikimedia Foundation, which organized Wikipedia, said there's technically nothing to prevent a public relations person - or anyone else - from changing an article. There are 95,000 people around the world, he said, who edit at least five articles a month, all on a volunteer basis. Their concern, said Walsh, is about the person with a vested interest in something who tries to remove controversial material.
"Wikis are supposed to be open platforms," said Walsh. "You shouldn't edit articles if you have a personal stake in them, but there's no technical 'Thou shalt never do that.'"
DiStaso argued that while PR people may be self-interested, they are also in a position to have correct information about the companies they promote - their earnings, names of executives, and so forth. She said that simply because a lot of Wikipedia contributors would be watching warily, they would be compelled to be honest.
Wikipedia's Walsh said DiStaso had a point when she complained that some requested corrections are made too slowly. "If an article doesn't get a lot of traffic, it may take time," he said. "But we do have customer service, all run by volunteers, and if something's urgent they can turn things around in 48 to 72 hours."
"In my opinion," DiStaso said, "the fix is to remove the conflict-of-interest policy. Go back to the way Wikipedia originally was. Anyone can post anything, and the public is the watchdog."