Who knew this story had legs? Essjay, an active editor on Wikipedia, who has claimed to be a tenured professor, is in fact a community college dropout. It turns out he used the claimed position to win arguments over content on Wikipedia. Heck, if I knew a Ph.D. ever helped you win arguments, I’d put it after my name all the time. “Hi, I’m Alex, Ph.D., and I’m right.” (I do say the “and I’m right” part, but I guess the Ph.D. part gives it more weight.)
Some of this comes back to a New Yorker article entitled “Know it all: Can Wikipedia Conquer Expertise” by Pulitzer-winning Stacy Schiff that appeared last summer. I have already praised that article in this blog as being a nicely balanced and readable piece. As much as a black eye as this gives Essjay, and possibly Wikipedia, what I am most struck by is the fact that a well-regarded journalist and magazine failed miserably in checking credentials. Although Wales’s response could have been much better, the truth is that Wikipedia shouldn’t care whether someone has a Ph.D. or not–there are likely people claiming silly things about their own expertise every day on the talk pages of Wikipedia, but given that the resource is designed to draw its credibility from the sources, not the authors, this shouldn’t be a big deal. On the other hand, when I pick up the New Yorker and read that someone is a professor, I expect that they have made at least a rudimentary effort to check this. This is particularly true when the core of her argument is that there is a standoff between traditional sources of academic authority and new forms. Wouldn’t you think knowing which part of that spectrum one of your informants stands on is important? Kudos for appending a correction, but really: too little, too late.
The black eye suffered by Wikipedia is not so much to process as it is to general respectability, and it provides another outstanding piece of ammunition for those who are already critical. As Brock Read writes over at the Chronicle, “the incident is clearly damaging to Wikipedia’s credibility — especially with professors who will now note that one of the site’s most visible academics has turned out to be a fraud.” The Telegraph: “Deep down, though, we all knew it wasn’t that reliable.” Larry Sanger, long a critic of uncredentialed encycloping finds the initial shrug from Wales and Essjay’s “non-apology” to suggest that the moral keel of Wikipedia administrators is a more than a little uneven.
Wales’s initial acceptance of Essjay’s fake credentials, while they may have been spot-on in terms of the content of the site, were particularly tone deaf to the wider community of knowledge. While credentials do not matter to Wikipedia, they do matter to much of the non-Wikipedia world, and faking them suggests to critics and non-users that the core of Wikipedia is rotten. A more measured response would have used this as an opportunity to note that even the worst transgressions of any single editor are put in check by the community. Sure, that may be a simplification of the niceties involved, but as a simplification it does much better than “so what?”
What I find peculiar is that the New Yorker is largely getting a pass. Wikipedia doesn’t check credentials as part of its administrative structures–or, rather, hasn’t–but the New Yorker and “professional journalists” are expected to maintain certain standards, and they really fell down here.
The worst possible response: Wikipedia trying to check credentials of those who claim a degree. Someone at Wikimania last year suggested that those with a Ph.D. should be verified, and a little star placed next to their name. I noted then, and still think, that vetting academic credentials is a job left to journalists and fact-checkers, and not a worthwhile project for Wikipedia to engage in. I really hope they back off this position, and instead suggest that decisions not be made by credentialed fiat: “I have a Ph.D., so I must be right.”