Wikipedia founder speaks on the Essjay controversy

Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia user-generated and edited encyclopaedia, said he expects contributors to the site who claim certain credentials will soon have to prove they really have them.

The new policy, which is currently under discussion by the community of users who regularly write and maintain the site, is being considered after it emerged this month that one of Wikipedia's most respected editors didn't hold the qualifications he claimed.

The user, who went under the pseudonym "essjay," described himself in an online profile as a "tenured professor of theology" and said he taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in the subject. He also said he held a bachelor of arts in religious studies, a master of arts in religion, doctorate in philosophy in theology and a doctorate in canon law.

But it wasn't true.

Essjay was actually Ryan Jordan, a 24 year-old from Kentucky, who revealed his true identity when he joined Wikia Inc., the for-profit company run by Wales that seeks to use the community content model to make money.

"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.," he wrote on Wikipedia when questioned about the different profiles, according to a copy of a now-deleted page kept by Wikipedia Watch. Jordan said he lied about his job and educational background in order to protect his identity, but when he was hired by Wales to work at Wikia came clean on who he really was.

However, the controversy didn't stop there. Essjay was interviewed for a story in The New Yorker magazine in 2006 so the revelation of his fake profile prompted an editor's note in a recent edition. That spread the controversy well beyond Wikipedia's message boards. Subsequent investigations into his claims on his Wikia profile indicated that some of those could also be false.

"It's a bit of a mess," Wales said in an interview in Tokyo. Wales arrived in Japan at the beginning of the week, and plans to stay there a month.

"We're not happy about it," he said. "To discover that someone had been deceiving the community for a long time really was a bit of a blow to our trust. Wikipedia is built on the idea of trusting other people and people being honest and we find that in the most part everyone is, so it was a real disappointment."

As a result of the problems contributors are now likely to be asked to back up any specific claims they make regarding qualifications, especially when they are relevant to articles being written, edited or altered, said Wales. If editors are using their real name then this can be quite a simple task but for those editing anonymously it could be trickier, he said.

"In that case we'll probably just discourage them from prominently featuring their credentials," said Wales. "You know, it's fine if you want to edit and don't want to go through that process but you shouldn't be writing about your credentials unless you can prove them."

The revelations came at a bad time for Wikipedia. In recent months the site has been in and out of the headlines for various issues but its credibility is continually being questioned -- not because it's full of errors but because it doesn't know the identity or motivation of its contributors.

Wales initially pledged his support for Jordan, and that set off the site's critics.

The Wikipedia founder now admits that was a mistake and says he reacted in the way that he did because he didn't initially fully understand the specifics of the case.

"I didn't think it was all that important because I didn't realize he was relying on credentials as a professor," he said. "He treated it really as a bit of a joke and the actual credentials he claimed were a bit ludicrous. After the fact you can look back and say, 'Well that was a bit odd,' but I never really looked into it and that was the big mistake that I made in the whole process."

Essjay has now given up his work on Wikipedia. At least that's what he said in a final post, but whether Jordan is still at work on the site is impossible to know simply because contributors are anonymous.

He also resigned his position at Wikia.

For Wales, "The great irony is that he is a fabulous editor and did really an amazing amount of good work."

"He spent most of his time reverting vandalism, mediating disputes and was always a very kind and loving and thoughtful person who, you know, anytime people were having a dispute it was always good to see Essjay show up because he was quite good at getting all parties on the same track."

Wales said he thinks what's happened is unfortunate for Jordan.

"My view is when he first came on the site he made up this persona not really thinking very much about it and not realizing he was going to become very active and respected in the community and then I think he felt a bit trapped," he said. "I talked to him the other day and of course he's not very happy about all of the press coverage. One doesn't want to become famous for something like this but he feels a bit relieved that it's all over so I'm hoping the world will let him grow up in peace and he'll be successful in life."

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in