Essjay controversy

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  • February 8, 2005: Essjay account registered.
  • 2005–2006: Essjay states on his Wikipedia user page that he teaches graduate theology, with doctorates in Theology and Canon Law.[1]
  • July 31, 2006: The New Yorker publishes an article on Wikipedia, written by Stacy Schiff, which features an interview with Essjay.
  • January 2007: Essjay is hired by Wikia.
  • January 7, 2007: Essjay posts autobiographical details on his user page at Wikia, giving his supposed real name (Ryan Jordan), age, and previous employment history from age 19, and his positions within various Wikimedia Foundation projects. These details differ sharply from previous assertions on Essjay's Wikipedia user page about his academic and professional credentials.
  • January 2007: Daniel Brandt contacts the author of the article about discrepancies in Jordan's biography.[2]
  • February 2, 2007: Another Wikipedia editor challenges Essjay on his talk page about the discrepancy and he responds with an explanation.[3]
  • February 23, 2007: Jimmy Wales announces the appointment of Essjay to Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee (ArbCom). Wales later asserts that the appointment was "at the request of and unanimous support of" ArbCom.[4]
  • February 26, 2007: The New Yorker publishes the correction for its July 31 issue, which appears in its The Mail section of its print version. It is picked up by online sources within the next day.[5][6]
  • March 3, 2007: Wales asks Jordan to resign his "positions of trust". Jordan promptly retires from Wikipedia altogether and later resigns from his position at Wikia.[7]
  • March 5, 2007: Story covered by the The New York Times.
  • March 6, 2007: Jordan's hometown newspaper publishes an article casting doubts about his January 2007 claims on his Wikia userpage that he had worked for the United States Trustee Program and had been a Kentucky paralegal.[8]
  • March 7, 2007: Story covered in an Associated Press article.[9]
  • March 8, 2007: Story appears in two-minute segment on World News with Charles Gibson.[10]
  • March 12, 2007: The New Yorker publishes a formal apology by Wales in its March 19 The Mail section.[11]

The Essjay controversy related to a prominent Wikipedia administrator and salaried Wikia employee, Essjay (later self-identified as Ryan Jordan). In February 2007, Essjay was found to have made false claims about his academic qualifications and professional experiences on his Wikipedia user page and to journalist Stacy Schiff during an interview for The New Yorker,[12][13][14] and to have exploited his supposed qualifications as leverage in internal disputes over Wikipedia content. The issues highlighted within the controversy included his falsifying of a persona and qualifications, the impact of this deception on perceptions of Wikipedia (and its policies and credibility), and the quality of decisions made in his promotion, support, and employment.

Reactions to the disclosure were diverse, encompassing commentary and articles in the electronic, print, and broadcast media;[10] the Wikipedia community researched Essjay's article edits to check for errors, and debated proposals to improve the project's handling of personal identification. In his activities as an editor, Essjay had spent less time editing the content of articles and more time addressing vandalism and resolving editorial disputes.[7]

Wikipedia co-founder[15] Jimmy Wales initially supported Essjay's use of a persona, saying, "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it."[16] Later Wales withdrew his support and asked for Essjay's resignation from his positions with Wikipedia and Wikia.[7][16] Wales stated that he withdrew his support when he learned "that EssJay [sic] used his false credentials in content disputes" on Wikipedia.[17]


[edit] The New Yorker interview

Image of Essjay from his Wikia profile

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for The New Yorker, interviewed Essjay as a source for an article about Wikipedia ("Know It All"; July 31, 2006) after he was recommended to her by a member of the Wikimedia Foundation. According to The New Yorker, Essjay "was willing to describe his work as a Wikipedia administrator but would not identify himself other than by confirming the biographical details that appeared on his user page."[12]

During the interview, Jordan told The New Yorker, and had previously stated on his Wikipedia user page, that he held doctoral degrees in theology and canon law, and worked as a tenured professor at a private university.[1] It was later discovered that he was 24 years old, and had dropped out of community college with no qualifications.[8] The New Yorker published a correction in February 2007, which brought the issue to broader public attention.[12]

The article said that Essjay spent some 14 hours or more a day on Wikipedia but was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends. Essjay was portrayed as often taking his laptop to class, so he could be available to other Wikipedians while giving a quiz. He asserted that he required anonymity to avoid cyberstalking.[12]

Essjay claimed that he had sent an email to a college professor using his invented persona's credentials, vouching for Wikipedia's accuracy. In the message he wrote in part, "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."[18][14]

[edit] Identity revealed

When Essjay was hired by Wikia in January 2007, he made changes to his Wikia profile and "came clean on who he really was," identifying himself as Ryan Jordan.[19][20][21][22][23] Other Wikipedia editors questioned Essjay on his Wikipedia talk page about the apparent discrepancy between his new Wikia profile and his previously claimed credentials.[3][24] Essjay posted a detailed explanation in response to the first inquiry, stating that:

There are a number of trolls, stalkers, and psychopaths who wander around Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects looking for people to harass, stalk, and otherwise ruin the lives of (several have been arrested over their activities here)...You will eventually say something that will lead back to you, and the stalkers will find it...I decided to be myself, to never hide my personality, to always be who I am, but to utilize disinformation with regard to what I consider unimportant details: age, location, occupation, etc..." [3]

He later commented on his Wikipedia user page about having fooled Schiff by "doing a good job playing the part."[14]

Social activist and Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt then reported the identity discrepancy to The New Yorker.[2] In late February 2007 the magazine updated its article with a correction indicating that "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."[12]

On March 3, 2007, Andrew Lih, Assistant Professor and Director of Technology Journalism and of the Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong,[25] said on his blog that a portion of Essjay's comments on the incident entered "the dangerous domain of defamation and libel" against Stacy Schiff. Lih quoted Essjay as writing on his Wikipedia talk page: "Further, she [Schiff] 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." Lih noted:

This is an accusation of the highest degree to make about a journalist. Paying a source for a story is an absolute no-no in the normal practice of print journalism. And it struck me immediately how incredible it was he would accuse Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning author writing for The New Yorker, of this crime. We either have a serious breach of ethics with Ms. Schiff or another dubious statement claim from Essjay.

Lih wrote that he contacted Schiff for comment about whether she had offered to pay Essjay for his time, and quoted her return email. In it Schiff stated that Essjay's assertion was "complete nonsense."[26]

[edit] Reaction

[edit] Wikipedia community

Speaking personally about Jordan, Wales said, “Mr. Ryan [sic] was a friend, and still is a friend. He is a young man, and he has offered me a heartfelt personal apology, which I have accepted. I hope the world will let him go in peace to build an honorable life and reputation.”[27]

Essjay had responded at the time with a statement on his Wikipedia page, in part reading:

…I *am* sorry if anyone in the Wikipedia community has been hurt by my decision to use disinformation to protect myself. I'm not sorry that I protected myself; I believed, and continue to believe, that I was right to protect myself, in light of the problems encountered on the Internet in these trying times. I have spoken to all of my close friends here about this, and have heard resoundingly that they understand my position, and they support me. Jimbo and many others in Wikipedia's hierarchy have made thier [sic] support known as well…[28]

Reaction from within the Wikipedia community to the Essjay/Jordan identity discrepancy was sharp, voluminous, and mixed. While most editors denounced at least some of his actions, responses ranged from offering complete support to accusing Jordan of fraud.[29]

As the controversy unfolded the Wikipedia community began a review of Essjay's previous edits and some felt he had relied upon his fictional professorship to influence editorial consideration of edits he made. "People have gone through his edits and found places where he was basically cashing in on his fake credentials to bolster his arguments," said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator and founder of the Wikipedia community newspaper, The Wikipedia Signpost. "Those will get looked at again."[29] For instance, Essjay had recommended sources such as Catholicism for Dummies,[30] a book granted the nihil obstat and imprimatur by the Roman Catholic Church.[31] Essjay defended his use of the book by telling fellow Wikipedia editors in a disagreement over the editing of the article Imprimatur: "This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s [sic] credibility."[29][32]

Jimmy Wales proposed a credential verification system on Wikipedia following the Essjay controversy, but the proposal was rejected.

Wales was "...reported to be considering vetting all persons who adjudicate on factual disputes."[33] "I don't think this incident exposes any inherent weakness in Wikipedia, but it does expose a weakness that we will be working to address," Wales added.[27] He insisted that Wikipedia editors still would be able to remain anonymous if they wished. "We always prefer to give a positive incentive rather than absolute prohibition, so that people can contribute without a lot of hassle", Wales commented. However, he also warned that “It's always inappropriate to try to win an argument by flashing your credentials, and even more so if those credentials are inaccurate.”[9] Wales argued "contributors to the site who claim certain credentials will soon have to prove they really have them."[19] However, Florence Devouard, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, was not supportive of his credential proposal, saying, "I think what matters is the quality of the content, which we can improve by enforcing policies such as 'cite your source,' not the quality of credentials showed by an editor." A formal proposal that users claiming to have academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in content disputes was eventually rejected by the Wikipedia community,[34] like all previous such proposals.

As a follow-up to his initial comments to The New Yorker, Wales wrote this apology to the magazine, which appeared in its March 19, 2007 issue:

I am writing to apologize to The New Yorker and Stacy Schiff, and to give some follow-up concerning Ryan Jordan (Editors' Note, March 5). When I last spoke to The New Yorker about the fact that a prominent Wikipedia community member had lied about his credentials, I misjudged the issue. It was not O.K. for Mr. Jordan, or Essjay, to lie to a reporter, even to protect his identity.[11]

Wales expressed his regret that Essjay had "made a series of very bad judgments."[11] He also commented that he hoped Wikipedia would improve as a result of the controversy.[11]

[edit] Wikipedia critics

Journalist and Wikipedia critic Andrew Orlowski.
Larry Sanger, who left Wikipedia and is now editor-in-chief of Citizendium.

Andrew Orlowski, a frequent Wikipedia critic and writer for The Register—a British technology news and opinion website—criticized Jimmy Wales for hiring Essjay at the venture-capital-funded 'Wikia' and for appointing him to the Wikipedia arbitration committee after Essjay had apparently admitted his previously claimed academic and professional credentials were false. Orlowski added that Essjay's actions betrayed a dangerous community mindset within Wikipedia.[35]

Others to comment adversely included ZDNet writer Mitch Ratcliffe, who asked "why lying about one's background qualifies a person to work for a company like Wikia, which proposes to help communities to record accurate information" and asked for additional details "such as when he fired Jordan and the reasons for the firing, as well as when he endorsed Jordan in public statements."[16]

Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief of online encyclopedia Citizendium,[36] and a co-founder of Wikipedia who left the project in 2002,[37][38] called Essjay's response "a defiant non-apology"[39] and elsewhere characterized Essjay's actions as "identity fraud."[35] Citing comments by Essjay on his Wikipedia talk pages, Sanger asserted that other members of Wikipedia management, including Angela Beesley (co-founder of Wikia and a member of Wikimedia Foundation's Communications Committee[40]) and Brad Patrick (legal counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation[41]) had participated in hiring Jordan despite their knowledge of the identity discrepancy. Sanger also implied that Jordan's firing was purely the result of public outcry, and that "Only after these sad facts were publicly exposed, only after there was a hue and cry, did Jimmy Wales decide to ask for Essjay’s resignation."[42]

Other comments:

  • Seth Finkelstein (Internet activist) asserted that Wikipedia "fundamentally runs by an extremely deceptive sort of social promise" to its editors — that they will gain academic prestige by contributing to an on-line encyclopedia. Finkelstein said Essjay was a product of that deceptive system,[43] and was "that dream’s poster child."[14]
  • BusinessWeek commented on proposals for credential verification: "Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments. Some are concerned with revenge. Some with self-aggrandizement. Some just have nothing better to do. We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes..." However, the article argued that Wikipedia could not become a "net police" of reliability on the Internet.[44]
  • Steve Maich (journalist, Maclean's) stated that the controversy could damage Wikipedia's future as a media business operation, observing that Wikipedia's model was supposedly built upon trust and credibility.[45]
  • ITworld commented on Wikipedia contributors: "Legitimate writers, scholars and industry experts have very little motivation to contribute to Wikipedia—leaving the project with wannabes and posers like Essjay with too much time on their hands to churn out content."[46]
  • Andrew Keen (author, Cult of the Amateur) described the controversy as an example of ignoring expert guidance in favor of the "dictatorship of idiots."[47]
  • L. Brent Bozell III (president, Media Research Center) commented that "off-setting and off-putting material" can be added to Wikipedia to create "intellectual mischief." He called the Essjay controversy "enough to make used-car salesmen cringe."[48]
  • Cassandra Jardine (columnist, The Daily Telegraph) opined that Essjay was "hooked on 'Wiki crack' — devotees' jargon for the thrill of seeing your efforts debated." She further observed that "Essjay has provided a reminder that any given entry could have been written by someone as ignorant as ourselves. On the other hand, no one has taken issue with his edits, only his assumed persona, so perhaps the real lesson of this democratic medium is that college drop-outs might be as authoritative as professors."[50]

[edit] Academics

Following the media coverage of the Essjay controversy, a number of academics noted the damage to the credibility of Wikipedia. On March 2, 2007, a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education commented "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."[51] Ross Brann, a professor of Judeo-Islamic studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, stated that Wikipedia lacks a process of scholarly review, saying, "They could make up your life if they wanted to." Brann also said that Wikipedia "has no place in the University," and he believed the Essjay incident would do nothing to change the unfavorable opinion that academics generally hold about the online encyclopedia. Students at Cornell indicated that they may continue to use Wikipedia as a quick source of information, though they would not cite it in scholarly work.[52]

Nicola Pratt, a lecturer in international relations at the University of East Anglia in England stated, "The ethos of Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute, regardless of status… What's relevant is their knowledge as judged by other readers, not whether they are professors or not – and the fact the student [Essjay] was exposed shows it works."[53]

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b A public viewable version of this claim as dated 2006 is visible on the Internet Archive "Archived copy of Essjay's Wikipedia user page". The Internet Archive. Retrieved on 2007-10-18. . (Please note that if you click on the above link and you have an IRC client installed on your computer, either your client will open, or, if you already have your IRC client open, new tabs/channels will be opened.)
  2. ^ a b Ian King, "'A Wiki web they've woven'". Retrieved on 2007-03-02. 
  3. ^ a b c "Profiles do not mesh...". Essjay Wikipedia talk page. 2007-02-02. Retrieved on 2007-07-26. 
  4. ^ Jimmy Wales (2007-10-17). "ArbCom". WikiEN-l. Retrieved on 2007-10-23. 
  5. ^ Nicholas Carr (2007-02-27). "Essjay disrobed". Rough Type. Retrieved on 2007-07-26. 
  6. ^ Jeff Bercovici (2007-02-28). "Ode to Wikipedia Riddled with Errors". Radar. Retrieved on 2007-07-26. 
  7. ^ a b c Cohen, Noam. "Wikipedia ire turns against ex-editor", International Herald Tribune, March 6, 2007
  8. ^ a b Wolfson, Andrew. "Wikipedia editor who posed as professor is Ky. dropout", The Courier-Journal, March 6, 2007
  9. ^ a b Bergstein, Brian (March 7, 2007). "After flap over phony professor, Wikipedia wants some writers to share real names". Associated Press. 
  10. ^ a b "ABC News broadcast on Essjay". Retrieved on 2007-03-08. 
  11. ^ a b c d Wales, Jimmy (2007-03-19), "Making amends", The New Yorker: 24, .
  12. ^ a b c d e Schiff, Stacey. "Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?", The New Yorker, July 24, 2006.
  13. ^ Cohen, Noam. "After False Claim, Wikipedia to Check Degrees", The New York Times, March 12, 2007.
  14. ^ a b c d Finkelstein, Seth. "Read me first", The Guardian, March 8, 2007.
  15. ^ Peter Meyers (September 20, 2001). "Fact-Driven? Collegial? This Site Wants You". The New York Times. Retrieved on 2007-11-05. 
  16. ^ a b c Ratcliffe, Mitch (March 5, 2007), Wikipedia: Why does Essjay need to "protect himself"?, Retrieved March 7, 2007.
  17. ^ Jimmy Wales (2007-03-03). "EssJay situation". WikiEN-l. Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  18. ^ "User:Essjay/Letter". WebCite. Retrieved on 2007-11-17. 
  19. ^ a b Williams, Martyn (2007-03-09). "Wikipedia Founder Addresses User Credentials". PC World.,129702-c,webservices/article.html. Retrieved on 2007-03-09. 
  20. ^ Zaharov-Reutt, Alex. "Wikipedia: did one of its admins lie?", March 2, 2007, retrieved March 6, 2007.
  21. ^ Goldman, Russell (March 6, 2007). "Wikiscandal: A Prominent Editor at the Popular Online Encyclopedia Is a Fraud". ABC News. Retrieved on 2007-03-06. 
  22. ^ Elsworth, Catherine (March 8, 2007). "Wikipedia 'expert' admits: I made it up". The Age. Retrieved on 2007-03-16. 
  23. ^ "Fake professor in Wikipedia storm". BBC News. March 6, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-03-16. 
  24. ^ Michael Snow (2007-03-05). "New Yorker correction dogs arbitrator into departure". Wikipedia Signpost. Retrieved on 2007-04-29. 
  25. ^ "Andrew Lih". Hong Kong University. Retrieved on 2007-11-05. 
  26. ^ Andrew Lih (2007-11-05). "Essjay's Third Transgression". Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  27. ^ a b Doran, James (March 6, 2007). "Wikipedia chief promises change after ‘expert’ exposed as fraud". Tech & Web. The Times. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  28. ^ Keen, Andrew (March 7, 2007). "Laughter and forgetting on Wikipedia". ZDNet. Retrieved on 2007-03-13. 
  29. ^ a b c Cohen, Noam (March 5, 2007). "A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side". Technology. The New York Times. Retrieved on 2007-03-06. 
  30. ^ Trigilio, John; Brighenti, Kenneth (2003-04-28). Catholicism for Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing. ISBN 0-7645-5391-7. 
  31. ^ "Catholicism for Dummies". Retrieved on 2007-07-25. 
  32. ^ "Talk:Imprimatur". Wikipedia. 2005-04-12. Retrieved on 2007-08-28. 
  33. ^ Staff (March 7, 2007). "Wikipedia's 'bogus' editor ousted". Freelance UK. 
  34. ^ "Wikipedia:Credentials". Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2007-07-26. 
  35. ^ a b Orlowski, Andrew (March 2, 2007). "Bogus Wikipedia Prof. was blessed then promoted". Music and Media. The Register. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  36. ^ Bergstein, Brian (March 25, 2007). "Citizendium aims to be better Wikipedia". USA Today. Retrieved on 2007-03-25. 
  37. ^ Bergstein, Brian (March 25, 2007). "Sanger says he co-started Wikipedia". ABC News (Associated Press). Retrieved on 2007-03-26. 
  38. ^ "More than just a war of words". The Sydney Morning Herald. April 21, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-04-23. 
  39. ^ Orlowski, Andrew (March 6, 2007). "Farewell, Wikipedia?". Music and Media. The Register. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  40. ^ "Resolution creation communications committee". Wikimedia Foundation. 2006-09-26. Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  41. ^ "Foundation hires Brad Patrick as general counsel and interim executive director". Wikipedia Signpost. 2006-06-19. Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  42. ^ Larry Sanger (2007-03-05). "One last, brief comment on the Essjay scandal". Citizendium Blog. Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  43. ^ Finkelstein, Seth (March 1, 2007). "What The New Yorker Article Fraud Tells Us About Wikipedia". Infothought. Seth Finkelstein. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  44. ^ B.L.Ochman (2007-03-22). "Wikipedia's Not the Net Police". BusinessWeek. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  45. ^ Steve Maich (2007-03-19). "Wikipedia's trouble with the truth". Maclean's. Retrieved on 2007-10-01. 
  46. ^ Blacharski, Dan (March 6, 2007). "Blog Insights: Wikipedia's great fraud". Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  47. ^ Levy, Steven (March 26, 2007). "Invasion of the web amateurs". Newsweek. p. 16. 
  48. ^ Bozell III, L. Brent (March 21, 2007). "Not Your Father's Encyclopedia". Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  49. ^ Beam, Alex (March 12, 2007). "Tricky truths behind Wikipedia". Boston Globe. p. E5. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  50. ^ Jardine, Cassandra (March 8, 2007). "Fount of all wisdom – and foolery". The Daily Telegraph. p. 21. Retrieved on 2007-09-29. 
  51. ^ Read, Brock (March 2, 2007). "Essjay, the Ersatz Academic". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 
  52. ^ Albanes, John (March 15, 2007). "Wikipedia Stays Popular Despite False Sources". The Cornell Daily Sun. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 
  53. ^ MacLeod, Donald (March 7, 2007). "Students marked on writing in Wikipedia". The Guardian.,,2028515,00.html. Retrieved on 2007-03-18. 

[edit] References

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