On Wikipedia, nobody's sure you're a prof

1 March 2007

Deceit is everywhere this week. Not least on Wikipedia where would-be "tenured theology professor" Essjay turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike the PR industry, much of Wikipedia's upper echelon seem unperturbed by representatives misrepresenting themselves.

One of the excuses that has been trotted out over the past couple of days since the New Yorker published its correction of Essjay's position is that the fake identity was created to stymie persistent Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt. The self-styled wikihunter has been publishing the identities of a number of Wikipedia admins since SlimVirgin, a Wikipedia admin, started an entry on him in the online encyclopedia at the end of September 2005.

It seems that Essjay was not just miraculously blessed in the academic department, he had the gift of foresight. Because three months earlier he was proudly telling correspondents of his position as an academic. In response to someone asking whether he is a Jesuit, Essjay replied on the 26th June 2005: "No, I'm not a priest or a Jesuit; I'm a professor at a private university in the US, and the Catholic Church is one of my areas of expertise."

Brandt did not turn up as a concern for Essjay until one year later when Brandt started digging into his true identity. Brandt noticed Essjay's lengthy editing sessions on Wikipedia, as did another user, Somey, on the site Wikipedia Review:

"I don't see much of anything wrong with him either, but I do have to say that something still doesn't add up. He really does spend a huge amount of time on Wikipedia, to the extent that it's difficult to believe that he even has a job at all, much less a tenured professorship somewhere.

"Believe it or not, I've known quite a few tenured professors, and while they generally don't work quite as hard as tenure-track associates, the idea that one of them could be that heavily addicted to Wikipedia and still do everything the job normally entails really does strain credibility a little bit.

"Maybe he never sleeps?"

A number of Wikipedians have commented to the talk page to the effect that the misrepresentation does not matter, that it is an internal matter and credentials don't matter on the encyclopedia. But Essjay took care to remind people of his fake credentials on a number of occasions, such as this reply in August 2005 (still ahead of Brandt's bust-up with Wikipedia:

"For you, however, I have the utmost respect, being a liberal arts Professor in the only civilised part of the U.S. as far as I'm concerned. However, you might want to hurry up presenting your evidence, since I'm once again leaving the country at 8:55 am tommorrow and won't be back until next month; and as I said on my user page, I won't be editing on Wikipedia any more after I get back to work and my routine, etc."

And he was not afraid to use his vaunted position to browbeat an academic who complained about sourcing:

"I am an administrator of the online encyclopedia project Wikipedia. I am also a tenured professor of theology; feel free to have a look at my Wikipedia userpage (linked below) to gain an idea of my background and credentials."

As Dr Zen notes in a comment to one of Seth Finkelstein's posts on the subject: "Essjay simply lied to big himself up." For the moment, Essjay's response is a big fat "no comment" and let the PRs sort it out: "The press teams are trained in making statements that should be repeated in the press; I am not." But they can work with what they are told by the client, a client that does not seem overly bothered about Ryan Jordan's efforts to use a position to obtain credibility with people outside the Wikipedia inner circle.

6 Comments

First of all this guy has to be fired. Secondly what does this say about Wikipedia's hiring practices?

Do they just believe everything anyone says? They may not have legitimate experts verifying the veracity of their entries but you would think they would check the backgrounds of employees?

Who is their book keeper? A bookie who always dreamed of being an accountant?

I take no pleasure in the ruin of a man, but it's pretty clear that Essjay sees nothing wrong with what he's done, and that he should not remain in the positions of trust that he now holds at Wikia and Wikipedia. (See Respected Wikipedian Lies to the Press.) However, one should never underestimate the power of denial and misguided loyalty. To wit, Jimbo Wales is standing by Essjay, claiming that Essjay "has been thoughtful and contrite about the matter."

I really don't think it makes a difference whether Essjay is a tenured professor or not. There are actually no credentials for the job of a site Administrator/Systems Operator (I know that because I'm also an Administrator) "This guy has to be fired?" "Check background of employees?" Um, Wikipedia did not hire the Administrators! We are not paid personnel in an office (I suggest you people read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:Administrator).

As Administrator, Essjay has been one of the most respected and respectful editor, and its quite unfortunate that he is made to look any less by a group of people who are downright oblivious to the way Wikipedia operates.

Orane,

You're right: there are no required credentials for a Wikipedia admin. But that is not what this debacle has been about. For some reason, Ryan Jordan thought it was important to claim he had qualifications and positions he didn't possess and used them not only to con a journalist but Wikipedia contributors into believing his responses were more authoritative than they were. That is why Jimbo Wales asked for him to step down as an admin. I don't believe Wales asked him to leave Wikipedia entirely - that was Jordan's decision.

He has not been made to look any less by people outside Wikipedia, only by his actions and, even to the end, continued lies about what he did. I suggest you read this: http://www.andrewlih.com/blog/2007/03/03/essjays-third-transgression/. It's a serious charge that he made against a US journalist (UK hacks, in practice, don't have quite the same restrictions) and, seemingly, only to maintain the illusion that he was somehow "wronged" by Schiff.

I don't doubt that he put a lot of work into Wikipedia. But the argument has not been about that.

Chris, for the record, I've never stated nor implied that Essjay should have done what he did. Nevertheless, I think that it's a case of him treading onto a path and being forced to continue on this path.

The article to which you directed me proved nothing, I'm afraid. In fact, the article committed two fallacies:
1) Attack on the person—Essjay is a liar, so his claim that Schiff attempted to compensate him must also be a lie;
2) Appeal to authority—Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist; therefore, she could never have behaved unethically.

(Let me point out that I'm not saying that I believe Essjay, I'm just pointing out that that article is still not convincing.)

Lastly, it's unfortunate that people were intimidated by Essjay's so-called credentials, since, according to the official polices of Wikipedia (and believe me, I know them thoroughly) no one has more editorial authority over another. In other words, whether Essjay was an Admin and/or a tenured professor, if what he was arguing was not supported by the policies, then he simply could not have won. I know from experience.

This is a comment from Judy Gombita who was prevented from posting her comment by a permissions problem on the site. Sorry if anyone was prevented from commenting over the last few days because of this.

Judy says:

I was reading about an alternative to Wikipedia--"Conservapedia"--in the weekend newspaper. I've excerpted the first part of the article below. As you can see, it leaves no doubt as to the "credentials" of its contributors and editors....

A U.S. conservative wants to set Wikipedia right

Andy Schlafly calls his competing version `fair and balanced.' It reads like anything but.


By Andrew Chung
Toronto Star

Is Conservapedia aiming to be for the Internet encyclopedia what Fox News Channel was for cable TV?

"Well," says Andy Schlafly, Conservapedia's founder, thinking for a moment, "Yes, it is!"

The website is on the same trajectory, at least. Fox stepped onto the national scene decrying liberal bias in the media and hyping conservative points-of-view, all the while calling itself "fair and balanced."

Conservapedia is doing the same, launching as it condemns Wikipedia, the wildly popular Internet encyclopedia that pretty much anyone can contribute to, for being skewed liberal, and against religion and America.

"Wikipedia has been taken over by liberally biased editors," Schlafly declares. "It's mobocracy."

For the rest: www.thestar.com/article/190501

Somehow I don't think I'll be using Conservapedia very much as a resource.
Cheers,
Judy