Wikipedia's 'bogus' editor ousted

The prospect of editors on Wikipedia having to prove their credentials before they can contribute to the online encyclopaedia has gained new momentum.

Site founder Jimmy Wales was yesterday reported to be considering vetting all persons who adjudicate on factual disputes after one editor - a self-styled lecturer - was unmasked as a student.

According to The Times, 24-year-old Ryan Jordan was able to make more than 20,000 alterations on controversial topics by declaring himself as a professor of religious studies.

His presence on the site as a established teacher - Essjay - even turned heads on the New Yorker, which published his ‘expert’ claims on canon law at face value.

The red-faced editor of one of the world’s most respected magazines has since issued a note to readers: “He holds no advanced degrees. He has never taught.”

In an e-mail message on Friday, deputy editor, Pamela Maffei McCarthy, told the New York Times: “We were comfortable with the material we got from Essjay because of Wikipedia’s confirmation of his work and their endorsement of him.

“In retrospect, we should have let our readers know that we had been unable to corroborate Essjay’s identity beyond what he told us.”

Since he was exposed, a debate has raged about the knock-on effect of Jordan’s actions, and the wider implications for Wikipedia – now one of the Web’s top 10 destinations.

Some posting on Wikipedia said Jordan had not hurt Wikipedia through unsound editorial judgements, though others said they felt betrayed.

Jordan claimed he posed a religious studies professor because he wanted to protect his identity, but others replied online, saying his masquerade was tantamount to fraud.

For Wales, who launched the site in 2001, the episode reinforces the idea that steps should be taken to ensure the 75,000 regular contributors – or ‘editors,’ are who they say they are.

Although anyone can contribute to the site and amend its content, copyright warnings tell each visitor to post responsibly, and if they don’t, Wikipedia can trace them via their IP address.

However these actions may soon be complemented by more stringent measures like the actual vetting of individuals who wish to regularly contribute, Mr Wales has reportedly suggested.

“I have an MA in Finance. I could fax a copy of the degree to the office,” he said, alluding to one possible plan that could ensure a tighter grip on the site’s user-generated content.

But Wales himself has hinted he doesn’t wish to dumb down the online interactivity of his brainchild, which could happen if new content controls are brought in.

He told the NYT: “Essjay apologised to me and to the community at large for any harm he may have caused, but he was acting in order to protect himself.

“I accepted his apology,” he reportedly continued, “because he is now, and has always been, an excellent editor with an exemplary track record.”

Jordan, who has now retired his voluntary role as editor, added his own ‘all’s well that ends well’ comment, seemingly in a bid to draw a line under the furore.

“I've enjoyed my time here, and done much good work; my time, however, is over, and leaving is the best thing for me and for Wikipedia,” he said in an online thread.

“I walk away happy to be free to go about other things. I hope others will refocus the energy they have spent the past few days in defending and denouncing me to make something here at Wikipedia better.”

Last month Wikipedia denied rumours it was in danger of folding, but admitted that rather than having its normal funds to continue for half a year; it only had enough to cover the next four months.


7th March 2007

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