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Academic Credentials and Wikiality 429

An anonymous reader writes "A prominent Wikipedia administrator and Wikia employee has been caught lying to the media and 'other' professors about his academic credentials. Wikipedia's Essjay has been representing himself as 'a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology. My Academic Degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD).' His real identity came to light after Wikia offered him a job: It turns out that he is really 24 years old with no degree living in Louisville, KY. Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimbo Wales, says 'I regard it as a pseudonym and I don't really have a problem with it.' How will this affect Wikipedia's already shaky reputation with the academic world?"
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Academic Credentials and Wikiality

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  • A pseudonym? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bieeanda ( 961632 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:44AM (#18193208)
    No. Sorry, but no. This is nothing more or less than a profound appeal to improper authority, the authority being the editor in question. I'd like to know how many times his 'credentials' have been called upon as proof in Wiki arguments, or the number of times that people have agreed with him on the false assumption that he was playing things straight.

    His username is a pseudonym. His claimed credentials are a fraud.

  • (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LoudMusic ( 199347 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:48AM (#18193258)
    They could host a second wikipedia site, or some such, using all the same software started with an empty database. In order to get an editors account you'd have to provide credentials from an upstanding college or university. Then see if it ever gets used.
  • Re:A pseudonym? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:51AM (#18193282)
    "No. Sorry, but no. This is nothing more or less than a profound appeal to improper authority, the authority being the editor in question"

    I can see why he did it, I think you can't blame him entirely. We have a whole irrational damn-near religious awe of credentials and enormous stigma against those who do not possess this "sacred currency", if you don't have a degree you're "low cog" (lower down on the cognitive chain) and hence "less worthy". The fact is our culture worships the paper. You are deemed more or less worthy by how well you navigated some arbitrary designed academic obstacle course that may or most likely - may not have interested you because of the stale (or incorrect) way it was presented and the stifling of natural curiosity that happens in how children are taught today. Gatto as commented on this extensively. []
  • by mdd4696 ( 1017728 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:52AM (#18193304)
    Not only can anyone edit Wikipedia, anyone can become an administrator as well. Anyone who makes valuable contributions to Wikipedia and shows an understanding of policies and Wikipedia's five pillars [] is welcome to apply to be an administrator.

    "Administrator" is somewhat of a misnomer, and many people give the position far more credence than it warrants. The fact that Essjay did not tell the truth about his personal life doesn't really influence Wikipedia's credibility at all; it's the misperception that this somehow influenced his ability to be an upstanding Wikipedian.
  • by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:56AM (#18193344) Homepage

    You can pick out almost any organization the size of Wikipedia and I bet I can find at least one person fudging their resume, or completely faking it and probably more than one if your company has more than 50 people. All that kid would have needed was to be a few years older and he could have diploma-milled his credentials. Not much different.

    Want to go through the faculty of any small or medium size community college and see how many diploma mill teachers they have on staff? Or how many people took graduate classes but never actually completed that degree they're claiming.

    Buying credentials is easy, the good ones will even verify them for employment checks. Sure, sooner or later the diploma mill will be found out, but who goes back to validate credentials periodically? A few companies but not very many.

  • by anthony_dipierro ( 543308 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:07AM (#18193446) Journal

    Since there is supposed to be no original research on Wikipedia and articles are only supposed to include facts cited from verifiable primary sources, it doesn't matter whether the editors of Wikipedia are Nobel-prize-winning physicists, illegal aliens, or baby killers.

    Nope, you forgot to carry that word "supposed" all the way through. Maybe it is supposed to not matter whether the editors of Wikipedia, but when the admins are the ones these rules in the first place, it does matter who the admins are.

    The person's arguments don't enter into it, because those arguments aren't filtered through the person's credentials, but through Wikipedia policy.

    This might be true if a computer were implementing Wikipedia "policy", but Wikipedia "policy" is implemented by humans. These policies (which are really very sparse, most of them are non-binding "guidelines") are not enforced systematically and consistently, so of course a person's credentials come into play.

    Anyway, if a person's credentials don't matter, then why not let everyone be an admin? If a person's credentials don't matter, then surely this particular admin will have no problem being re-granted adminship after a new review.

    If you see a situation where this isn't true, be bold and make an effort to correct the problem.

    I've tried that many times in the past. It doesn't work.

    Now, if this guy is using his fake credentials to get a job, money, media attention, or whatever else, then there's a problem, but I agree with Jimbo in the context of Wikipedia on this one - as long as his adminship was based on his activity on Wikipedia and his efforts to uphold Wikipedia's policies, Wikipedia should be blind to his real-world foibles.

    Personally I think the dichotomy between Wikipedia and the real world is a false one. Wikipedia is not a MMORPG. It's a real effort to make a real encyclopedia for the real world.

  • Stil Full of Shit? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Saeed al-Sahaf ( 665390 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:12AM (#18193484) Homepage

    His claimed credentials are a fraud.

    Not only that, his revised Wiki bio now says he was an account manager for Fortune 20 company and a licensed paralegal for 5 years before that. The guy is 24. Let's assume he was this account manager for maybe a year? So he must have started the 2 year paralegal school at what? 16 or so? Yeah.

  • by Everyman ( 197621 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:12AM (#18193486) Homepage
    Some screen-shot links for those who want more information. (Wikipedia sometimes makes controversial pages disappear):

    Essjay's user page at Wikia, where he "outed" himself: []

    Previous details from an old user page at Wikipedia: []

    Essjay brags about how he fooled The New Yorker: []

  • Re:Leave him alone! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Stewie241 ( 1035724 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:15AM (#18193512)
    The thing that worries me is that Essjay might have been editing an article on theocracy and then when it was challenged in the discussion, he could refer other editors to his credentials. And even if he wasn't doing that, users could be considering everything he says being golden because of his claimed credentials.

    Which is why when you're doing research and moderating such a tool source is so important. There are doctors who write garbage diet books - it doesn't mean they are good. Sources need to be cited. You can't really on a 'mine is bigger than yours' attitude to claim informational integrity. Sources should be peer reviewed articles or studies. Sure, it is fine to present reasoned arguments as to why something is or is not true, but "because I said so" is not an argument.
  • The Wikipedia Cabal (Score:4, Interesting)

    by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:28AM (#18193662)
    If Wikipedia was interested in being a reliable encyclopedia, we would know who the top people are (Arbitration Committee etc.), a lot of them would have PHD's, and there would also be a place up there for techies and so forth.

    So when the Arbitration Committee had elections (which Jimbo didn't want), who did he appoint that did not get the most votes? JayJG, who had 98 people oppose him going onto ArbCom, which was a hell of a lot for the position (it was over 100, but they attacked people's votes, cajoled people into changing their votes, erased questions and comments about his misconduct etc.) Filiocht had the same number of votes for him as did JayJG, yet only 18 opposing him. Filiocht is someone almost everyone can agree is fair, a lot of people have problems with JayJG and his biases. A number of people met the vote threshold and got a higher percentage than JayJG, so we thought we finally won and got him off the committee, which he had never been elected to. But Jimbo appointed him again, just like he did the first time.

    Why? Because he agrees with him politically. Jimbo ran the Ayn Rand mailing list for years and is one of those Randroid nuts. He appoints people like Fred Bauder, a lawyer who was disbarred for telling one of his woman clients to pay him in sex. Larry Sanger is who built Wikipedia anyway, but Jimbo was his boss so he not only wanted to grab the glory, he denies Sanger any credit.

    The problems at the top are massive, and I don't think Wikipedia will survive it. I see a split happening, and competitors, and the first real competitor will win and Wikipedia will disappear. I saw Gopher and Archie and Veronica be overtaken by Opentext on the web (anyone remember them?) and then Webcrawler and then Alta Vista and finally Google. Larry Sanger's creation is too good to not get competition. Of course, Jimbo pushed Larry aside and is ruining things. The next Wikipedia competitor will make Wikipedia history, just like Opentext is more or less history nowadays.

  • by I re-discovered Amer ( 1070124 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:31AM (#18193704)
    There are a bunch of other users on Wikipedia who say that they are professors. But, many of them are hyper-active. No one can edit Wikipedia that much and still have even a job. See [] -- who also has pages on Commons, Wikisource, a dozen other languages, etc. [] is another one. Same for t_Sunrise []. I have nothing against these guys -- they're pretty civil -- but I must say that I have my doubts now!
  • by Fordiman ( 689627 ) <fordiman AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday March 01, 2007 @10:42AM (#18193840) Homepage Journal
    Or not.

    Honestly. You don't use Wikipedia directly for academic stuff. You use it as a starting point, but you never reference it. Any college student can tell you this.

    'Shaky reputation in the Academic world.' Hah. It's got a great rep - as a starting point.
  • Re:Leave him alone! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by doctorcisco ( 815096 ) <> on Thursday March 01, 2007 @11:07AM (#18194144)
    It doesn't matter what degrees you have under your belt, it's what you DO that matters.

    I agree. It's what you do that matters. This guy lies.

    If anyone thinks lying about credentials doesn't matter, you're wrong. My Master of Divinity degree required learning to read Latin, German, Koine Greek, and Biblical Hebrew, then basing research conclusions on the linguistic and historical setting of documents written in those languages.

    If we're talking theology, or you read something I've written, you need to be able to trust that I do indeed have those skills, and have used them honestly. Like any other kind of specialized knowledge, it's rather easy to put one over on the non-specialist.

    Come to think of it, that's been the problem in the theological world for a very long time.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 01, 2007 @12:00PM (#18194796)
    You're really a dog. Or a cat. Or a parrot. Or whatever. Or even a university professor.

    As some people have correctly pointed out, having academic degrees isn't a guarantee of proficiency, and not having academic degrees does not mean you aren't proficient. People who study a subject and work hard at it on their own can learn a great deal. They don't have to be formally trained. Training helps (I think of it like a fast-track), but never underestimate the power of self-motivation in learning. People can be wonderfully skilled without formal training, and I'm sure that there are plenty of people that fall in that category that contribute to wikipedia. I'm sure that this person's contributions were as good as is claimed, and they not having formal degrees doesn't change that.

    On the other hand, *lying* about having academic degrees or other qualifications. Well, that's different. It negates trust.

    The bottom line is, do a good job, and nobody will care whether or not you have formal degrees. Perform at the level of someone who does, and it's the output that really matters. I judge wikipedia's content by what is there, not by who wrote it or their claimed degrees. I don't care. So why lie about them? That's stupid.

    Lie about having formal degrees, and, I'm sorry, but you just shot yourself in the foot, and I won't trust your submissions anymore. Using false credentials to pump up the trust people might place in your (otherwise good or bad) comments is wrong. It doesn't lower my perception of wikipedia, though, because I've never evaluated it on the basis of credentials or lack anyway.

    As it turns out, I am a university professor (which is unverifiable, of course), and I have contributed to wikipedia (albeit in very minor ways). I've never logged in or indicated my credentials, and I'm post here as AC. Why should you care? If my words are any good, you'll read what's here and ponder them. If I still make spelling and grammatical errors, as I often do, people will still point them out and perhaps laugh a little more, I hope. Tacking some letters at the end of my signature shouldn't change whether my words were any good or not, but if I lied about them, obviously, you should not trust what I say anymore.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 01, 2007 @12:38PM (#18195346)
    You do realize that sites like Wikipedia Watch and morons like Daniel Brandt are the exact reason why Essjay created the fake profile -- to throw them all off. Wikipedia Watch and Brandt like to hunt down users' personal information (photos, name, address, occupation, etc) and post it online for all to see. Real winners, the whole lot of 'em...
  • by imidan ( 559239 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @03:35PM (#18197864)
    I get the feeling that there's this grand, egalitarian philosophy behind Wikipedia--this ideal of a vast, distributed network of citizen editors who form a self-improving, self-policing community. The reality is different. The real purpose of the community is not clear to me.

    You'll note that when you open up the Britannica, you don't find people's names attached to the articles there. Wikipedia, on the other hand, almost has ego built right in to the system. Look at Essjay's user page []. There's an entire section dedicated to bragging about his edit count, his longevity with the project, his position in the top 1000, etc. Tell me, is Wikipedia about producing a great research product, or is it about who has the most marbles?

    Why was this article posted? Because one user, ostensibly to "protect" himself from the Internet "in these trying times," misrepresented himself with a litany of credentials that he had no right to claim. Why? I find the "protection" excuse to be woefully inadequate. He could have protected himself simply by maintaining anonymity. But who wants to show up at the game with the same sized sack of marbles as any other poor schlub? Why not show up with ten times as many marbles, if you can? That's effectively what he did with his phony Ph.D and his teaching position on a mystery faculty somewhere.

    I think that's what Wikipedia has become, to some people. It's a massively distributed Internet popularity contest, just like any other message board. In large part, they manage to come out with good articles, but for a lot of the people there, that's only part of the reason for contributing. The other part, and possibly the larger part, is composed of bragging rights, power over content and over other users, and other perks of being important in the hierarchy. This is the opposite of egalitarian. People joke on Wikipedia about a "cabal" of users that control the content. That word may be leaning toward the hysterical, but is it so far from the truth? How many editors believe that they exert some power of ownership over particular articles? Have you ever tried to make the slightest edit to an article where Wikipedia's big boys are playing? Good luck with that.

    I may sound more negative than I really feel. I like Wikipedia, and I find it valuable, and I make edits there when I feel that they are appropriate. But I have no illusions as to the attitudes of many of the other users and the capricious ways in which they wield their power.
  • Re:Theology. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by irenaeous ( 898337 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @04:18PM (#18198528) Journal

    Part of what makes his lies rather egregious is that a genuine doctoral program in theology is rather rigorous and requires mastery of a number of languages -- Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, German, and French. I am thinking of programs like those at Yale or Princeton or Claremont -- even Fuller in Pasadena. They are generally more rigorous than most similar liberal arts doctorates. If this liar actually had the degrees he claimed, it would have been a good match.

    But -- he can get away with these lies because there are so many sectarian theological schools which no one has heard of, that it makes it easy to make claims like this and not expect people to check them out. And, of course, the quality of the degree from these schools varies greatly.

  • by Larry Sanger ( 936381 ) on Thursday March 01, 2007 @09:32PM (#18202192) Journal
    There's something utterly breathtaking, and ultimately tragic, about Jimmy telling The New Yorker that he doesn't have a problem with Essjay's lies, and by essentially honoring Essjay after his lies were exposed. As Blogworld quite rightly said, "By his [Jimmy's] actions or lack thereof ... and [by] his words he is endorsing fraud." I've become increasingly disillusioned with Jimmy's behavior, but this I simply wouldn't have expected. It's one thing to revise history self-servingly. But this new incident seems self-destructive on a level beyond previous incidents. Doesn't Jimmy realize that this could well blow up in his face-that it could well be picked up by the news media and severely damage not only Wikipedia's reputation, but Wikia's bottom line (since Wikia is, still, Essjay's employer)? The media is already making some noise (the story broke yesterday) and it's likely only to get hotter. The media now loves a good Wikipedia scandal. Since this one has such a compelling narrative line, and a "you can't make this stuff up" quality to it, how can tech reporters resist? And how can respected observers of the scene then fail to draw some obvious conclusions, as the blogosphere is already doing in its usual vigorous way? Doesn't Jimmy know that this has the potential to be even more damaging to Wikipedia than the Seigenthaler situation, since it reflects directly on the judgment and values of the management of Wikipedia? (More on my blog... [])

...there can be no public or private virtue unless the foundation of action is the practice of truth. - George Jacob Holyoake