Late yesterday, December 28th, the Wikimedia Foundation board of trustees voted to remove one of its own members, Dr. James Heilman, from that governance body. Heilman, an emergency room physician from Canada, had just been appointed to the wiki board in only June 2015, with the backing of many hundreds of “votes” from the Wikipedia community of editors who were charged with nominating a representative member to the post. Heilman was noteworthy as an active advocate for bringing improvements and consistency to Wikipedia’s often sloppy articles about health and medicine. He had become a go-to media source, providing quotes when journalists were covering medical content in Wikipedia, so his name and commentary have appeared in The New York Times, BBC, CNBC, The Atlantic, CBC, and others.
His ouster from the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) non-profit board came as a surprise, with Heilman himself announcing it to the world via a mailing list, apparently during the board meeting itself (according to Wikipedia co-founder and entrepreneurial ne’er-do-well, Jimmy Wales). As mentioned, because Heilman was so popular with the Wikipedia community, the board’s vaguely-worded and hasty non-explanation for Heilman’s dismissal brought on a wave of complaints from long-time activists in the Wikipedia cult. This left observers with the ability only to speculate about why the doctor had failed to get a clean bill of health from his fellow directors. Only one board member other than Heilman voted to retain him.
Because Dr. Heilman (on his personal time) had been rather aggressively hunting down and exposing apparently commercially-motivated editors on medical articles on Wikipedia, one observer theorized that the WMF may have received a corporate attorney’s complaint from a healthcare firm with deep pockets, which forced their hand. (For example, see this Atlantic article, regarding Heilman’s investigation of Medtronic.)
In a bit of a contradictory move, Dr. Heilman — who champions the cause of improving medical topic coverage on Wikipedia — in 2013 voted against a Wikipedia proposal to place a disclaimer at the top of important health-related articles, to warn readers not to rely on the contents for medical advice. Heilman argued that such a disclaimer would “clutter” the article, and that people “do not expect Wikipedia to be accurate”.
Now the mailing list community is hashing out whether the Wikimedia Foundation board even had the legal standing to remove a community-nominated representative from the board, according to Florida statute 617.0808 regarding the removal of directors. Some mild assurances have been presented by board members, that a more detailed explanation may be forthcoming from the board.