How to deal with liars on Wikipedia?

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.

See here for a follow-up post.

8 Responses to “How to deal with liars on Wikipedia?”

  1. a/c Says:

    Cyde, I haven’t been on Wikipedia for a few months and I was never a member of any “inner circle”, but I thought this was (mostly) public knowledge within the Wikipedia community? Checking now, Essjay copped to it over a month ago. Any idea why this is getting play now?

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    It’s getting play now because it finally hit critical mass. The New Yorker learned of it and amended their story, which caused a chain reaction amongst other sites. It may have been uncommon knowledge in the Wikipedia community, but nobody else was talking about it. Now just go onto Technorati and type in Essjay and see who’s talking about it.

    And I checked my IRC logs and it turns out I first learned of this a few months ago, not just one month ago … geez, time goes by so fast.

  3. Gary Kirk Says:

    Do you have something against Ryan? These recent entries seem very biased anti-Essjay.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    Yeah, I guess you could say I have something against him. It turns out he was a huge liar, basically living a double life online. He represented himself as a totally manufactured persona to myself and many others, and used the persona’s manufactured credentials to his personal advantage. So yeah, I do “have something against him”, although the way you’re phrasing it implies that it’s undeserved, which it certainly isn’t.

  5. Gary Kirk Says:

    I think he went too far, certainly, especially with the “I’d hang my PhD on it’s…” line on [[Imprimateur]] (for example).

    But was this to his “personal advantage”? I haven’t read into what he was actually arguing about, but how could he actually gain anything from being right or wrong on the issue, other than misplaced trust?

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    The personal gain part would be the (shortly-lived) job at Wikia. He never would have gotten that job if he wasn’t a prominent member of the Wikipedia community. And one thing that helped him rise to prominence was this belief that he was a tenured college professor. That significantly modifies people’s perceptions.

  7. arensb Says:

    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?

    That he deserves the Presidential Barnstar of Freedom for “doin’ a heckuva job”?

  8. Banned from Wikipedia Says:

    Future Perfect at Sunrise is Lukas Pietsch – another liar who frauds money given him for research while not performing paid research, but wasting time for editing Wikipedia instead.