About a month ago it became known to me that one of the most powerful and influential people on the English Wikipedia, Essjay, had been lying through his teeth for over a year. He claimed to have been a 40-something professor of theology, but it turned out in the end that was he was a 24-year-old with no such degree. I didn’t say anything publicly about it at the time in deference to my sources’ requests, but now that the cover has been blown off on this whole sordid affair, I feel obligated to comment.
The thing is, I could maybe forgive him if he had just made up this alternative identity to keep his own identity anonymous. But he didn’t. He exploited those fake academic credentials to gain the upper hand in content disputes. Kelly Martin already does a great job of covering this side of it, but there’s one thing he said in particular that I’d like to point out:
If you’d like to start a [Request for Comment] on the matter, I’d be happy to offer the community my evidence; I am, after all, one of Wikipedia’s foremost experts on Catholicism. —Essjay, June 23, 2005
He made lots of statements like these to get an upper hand in debates; see Kelly Martin’s blog post for more details. I cannot forgive Essjay for what he has done. He has permanently lost my trust as well as the trust of many others. The sad thing is, Essjay is still active in all of the highest areas of the English Wikipedia; he’s a bureaucrat, checkuser, oversight, and within the past week he was appointed to the Arbitration Committee (usually these appointments are decided by community elections). So what now? Essjay lied to all of us in a particularly egregious manner, and the “punishment” is that he gets appointed to yet another important position? What kind of message does this send about Wikipedia?
This is bad, bad news.
Update: Here’s an even more damning false claim of credentials by Essjay:
I believe the entry to be correct as it reads, and I offer as my reference the text “Catholicism for Dummies” by Trigilio (Ph.D./Th.D.) and Brighenti (Ph.D.). The text offers a Nihil Obstat from the Rev. Daniel J. Mahan, STB, STL, Censor Librorum, and an Imprimatur from the Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, Vicar General. This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s credibility. —Essjay April 11, 2005
It must be easy to risk “losing” something you don’t even have in the first place.
Also, Larry Sanger (co?-founder of Wikipedia) has written an excellent blog post.