Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fake Professor at Wikipedia

Wikipedia is under attack yet again by the mainstream media. This time, it is because a now former high ranking administrator (Ryan Jordan known as Essjay at Wikipedia) there has been found to have fabricated his credentials by claiming to be an academic with multiple degrees he did not have.

Wikipedia already has an article on the controversy of course. It notes:

The Essjay controversy arose after The New Yorker magazine disclosed that a prominent English Wikipedia editor and administrator known by the name "Essjay", who was also briefly employed at Wikia, had lied about his age, background, and academic credentials, including claiming to have a doctoral degree. At the recommendation of the Wikimedia Foundation, Stacy Schiff interviewed Essjay as a source for a July 2006 New Yorker article which described Essjay as having notable academic credentials, which he confirmed at the time.[1] In February 2007 an editor's note was added to the original article, explaining that Essjay now said these credentials were non-existent and were part of an online persona he had created in part to avoid cyberstalking.[2] Essjay had described himself on his user profile as "a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States."[3] According to the note, he now said he was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old community college dropout from Kentucky and that he had relied on sources such as Catholicism for Dummies when editing articles.

While shocking, this kind of deception is not new and is not limited to Wikipedia. Does anyone remember Jayson Blair? He both plagiarized and fabricated articles at the New York Times for several years. I do not think Blair has proven that the New York Times is a bad resource though despite his fraud.

And let's not forget about Stephen Glass at the New Republic. 27 of 41 stories written by Glass for the magazine contained fabricated material. He wrote such fake gems as a 15 year old at national hacker convention and a Church of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jesus Christ. I still like the New Republic as a resource despite the Glass incident.

People fabricating degrees is not new either. The Chronicle of Higher Education frequently exposes people in higher education with diploma mill degrees. For example, history adjunct Fred Ruhlman at the University of Tennessee was reported at Cliopatria, "(His) "doctorate" is from "the American University of London", a notorious diploma mill and his book, Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison, was withdrawn from publication by the University of Tennessee Press because of its plagiarism from William Marvel's Andersonville: The Last Depot." While embarrassing for the University of Tennessee, it hardly means UT degrees are now worthless.

I can find those fake Blair articles in my library right now in the microfilm versions of the New York Times. Those fake Glass articles from the New Republic are still in the bound periodical section of the library too. However, every edit Essjay has made is being examined and altered if it is found to be problematic. Unlike the mainstream press who have their mistakes archived forever in libraries, Wikipedia can be fixed when the fraud is discovered.

What is the lesson here? We need to teach our students how to critically evaluate any information they find. This includes stuff in print and online. Further, we should never be allowing our students to use encyclopedias (be it Wikipedia or the Encyclopædia Britannica) as a main source for a paper. Encyclopedias exist to give background information to get the research started. They should rarely be cited.

As Wikipedia has thousands of editors from around the world, it is not surprising that bad Wikipedians can be found just like bad academics with fabricated credentials in higher education can be found and bad writers with fake stories can be found in the mainstream media. The Essjay fake professor incident can be cited as a successful example of how the Wikipedia community was able to detect and fix the problem. However, this is such a good story, I guess I am not surprised that so many news sources are taking the whole incident out of context. In the meantime, I have no doubt that Wikipedia will continue on strong and that my students will continue to keep using Wikipedia . And I will have to keep educating them about the appropriateness of using encyclopedias as their main sources...


Jennie W said...

Just one more reason why I won't let my students cite Wikipedia!

M said...

Do you let them use the New York Times or the New Republic? After all, Blair and Glass put false info in those publications and they are still sitting on the library shelves, errors and all.

People have been know to lie, even in academia. Is it really surprising that it happened at Wikipedia?

Wikipedia can be used as a teaching tool. Let the students use it but then make them prove what they find by using more scholarly resources. I do not think banning students from Wikipedia is the answer. They just read it anyone but do not list it on their references page!

Steve Muhlberger said...

The number of offers I've had to write encyclopedia articles in recent years has made me pretty suspicious of expensive special purpose encyclopedias from reputable presses!

Jennie W said...

I'm actually thinking of making an assignment where the students have to edit Wikipedia articles by checking all their facts.

As to my policies - I let them use it for discussion, but not a source in papers. I try to make it clear that I'm not merely being annoying, but that they need to VERIFY all the facts in Wikipedia because there is no way to know if it is accurate or not.