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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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March112007

When is an Expert not an Expert? Ask Wikipedia

Just when you thought Wikipedia could get through a month without another controversy, one of its most well-known contributors is outed as a fraud. The incident raises questions - yet again - on how to balance the values of expertise, integrity and anonymity.

Last summer, the New Yorker ran an article about the world of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia initiative. The article profiled several people actively involved in Wikipedia, including founder Jimbo Wales and a contributor, or Wikipedian, known only as Essjay. (Note: “Essjay” shouldn’t be confused with another leading Wikipedian named “SJ,” known in the real world as SJ Klein of MIT’s One Laptop Per Child Initiative.) Essjay, one of Wikipedia’s most active contributors, was described in the article as a tenured professor of religion at a private university who preferred to participate in the website anonymously. In the months following the article, Essjay worked his way up the chain of command at Wikipedia until he achieved “arbitrator” status, which gave him the ability to overwrite edits made by other Wikipedians. On occasion, Essjay would cite his credentials to validate his edits and overrule others.

There’s just one problem. Essjay isn’t a tenured professor of religion at a private university. In late February, The New Yorker ran a correction about him: “[H]e was described in the piece as ‘a tenured professor of religion at a private university’ with ‘a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law. Essjay now says that his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught.” The New Yorker - not to mention the entire Wikipedia community - had been punk’d.

It didn’t take long for the story to flash through the news wires and blogs. Countless people felt betrayed that the Wikipedian who proclaimed his expertise in religion to win edit debates had never graduated from college and relied on books like Catholicism for Dummies to write Wikipedia entries. Since the story broke last week, Essjay - I mean Ryan Jordan - has left Wikipedia altogether, posting a farewell message on the site:

My comments here will be short and to the point: I’m no longer taking part here. I have received an astounding amount of support, especially by email, but it’s time to go. I tried to walk away in August, and managed to do so for quite a while, but I eventually came back, because of the many requests I received urging me to return. Many of you have written to ask me to not leave, to not give up what I have here, but I’m afraid it’s time to make a clean break…. … I’ve enjoyed my time here, and done much good work; my time, however, is over, and leaving is the best thing for me and for Wikipedia. I walk away happy to be free to go about other things. I hope others will refocus the energy they have spent the past few days in defending and denouncing me to make something here at Wikipedia better.

While it may seem he’s trying to leave gracefully, not everyone is taking it that way. Before departing, he stated on the website that the author of the New Yorker article “made several offers to compensate me for my time, and my response was that if she truly felt the need to do so, she should donate to the Foundation instead.” Blogger Andrew Lih, a former professor who is devoting his energies towards researching the dynamics of Wikipedia, contacted the New Yorker reporter for a response: “This is complete nonsense,” she replied. Deputy Editor of The New Yorker, Pam McCarthy, backed her up, stating that this is “one of the worst charges that can be made about a reporter. We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia’s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him.”

The sordid affair has shaken many people in the Wikipedia community. Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, who first defended Essjay, now says Wikipedia will work out a strategy to require any Wikipedian who cites their credentials as part of their edits to provide proof of those credentials. How this will work, though, remains to be seen. Wales acknowledges, though, that anonymous contributors will still be allowed to contribute to the site.

It’s this point that boils the blood of many academics, who would prefer to see a more transparent system in which contributor’s identities and credentials are placed front and center. In some ways, it’s a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, anonymous editors are regarded with skepticism, to put it mildly, by many people. On the other hand, anonymity protects those participants who wish to contribute their expertise without some sort of political backlash.

Wikipedia is at its best when people are participating in good faith. Unfortunately, incidents like Essjaygate shake that faith to its foundations, re-igniting criticisms that the content contained within the encyclopedia simply cannot be trusted. And because many Wikipedians tout what they call an “anti-credentialist” philosophy, there’s an undercurrent of hostility towards “experts.” While I sympathize with the argument that PhDs don’t have a monopoly on the truth, that doesn’t mean their contributions should be shunned writ-large.

To paraphrase a description of the Ottoman Empire, Wikipedia risks becoming the Old Man of the Internet, mistrusted and broken, if it cannot come up with a resolution to this matter. The public at large may know more about any given subject than any single expert, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for them to work together. It shouldn’t be a war of citizen encyclopedians versus experts - it should be a collaborative partnership in developing networked knowledge. -andy

Filed under : Wikis

Responses

It shouldn’t be a war of citizen encyclopedians versus experts - it should be a collaborative partnership in developing networked knowledge.

And that is exactly what it is. With hundreds of thousands of contributors it’s no surprise that there would be a few Essjays. So what?

It doesn’t change the fact that Wikipedia is an incredible success story. Would the Internet be a more interesting place without it? Of course not. We built it and we should be proud.

I don’t mind one premise of Wikipedia - that anyone can contribute. However, this latest kerfuffle is caused by the anonymity of the contributors. Essjay tried to pass himself off as an expert with credentials that he doesn’t possess. Why would he do that if expertise doesn’t matter? When I work with students on evaluating websites I tell them that web authors who don’t reveal their level of expertise should be considered with skepticism. I will continue to be a skeptical user of Wikipedia, and any other source on the Web!

This is a good lesson for all of us to learn. We should be more diligent in using more then one source of information. You and I have not reached perfection and will make mistakes. However, these mistakes doesn’t hinder us from continuing to do the best we can with what we have.

Wikipedia is a reflection of life in general in that those who use it would do well to consider it as one source of information amongst many, and then take personal responsibility to sift it all out and come to a tentative conclusion (leaving the mind open for alterations as new info becomes available). Learning, and growing mentally, is an art form. Who would choose the paint for a picture from an palette of only one color?

As an educator I have to echo the responses given so far. Not only is it each person’s responsibiliy to verify and evaluate information for himself or herself, but Wikipedia also provides an outstanding resource that educators can use in order to teach this skill to their students.

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