After False Claim, Wikipedia to Check Degrees
By NOAM COHEN
Published: March 12, 2007
After an influential contributor and administrator at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia was found last week to have invented a history of academic credentials, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and globetrotting advocate, called for a voluntary system for accrediting contributors who say they have advanced degrees, like a Ph.D or M.D.
The details of how Mr. Wales’s system would work are still being bandied about, and include the idea of having users fax copies of their diplomas to Wikipedia’s offices, or relying on a “circle of trust,” whereby a trusted individual would be in charge of verification. Mr. Wales said he thought that some version of his proposal would begin on the site “in a week.”
But reaction within the fiercely egalitarian Wikipedia world has not been universally favorable. Many writing on Mr. Wales’s user page seemed dumbstruck at the idea of Wikipedia spending its time to verify academic authority when the site’s motto is “the encyclopedia anyone can edit.”
Florence Devouard, Mr. Wales’s successor as the head of Wikimedia Foundation board, the parent of the many Wikipedias in scores of languages, said she was “not supportive” of the proposal. “I think what matters is the quality of the content, which we can improve by enforcing policies such as ‘cite your source,’ not the quality of credentials showed by an editor,” she added.
Mr. Wales was reacting to the public fallout from the revelation that a contributor and Wikipedia administrator named Essjay who claimed to be a tenured professor in Catholic law was in fact Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old from Louisville, Ky. Mr. Wales said that the Essjay controversy was evidence of “growing pains” for the site, a worldwide phenomenon that has become a default research tool for nearly everyone who uses the Internet.
And while he said “the moral of the story is what makes for a good Wikipedian is not a good credential,” he added that it was important that the general public not think that Wikipedia is “written by a bunch of 12-year-olds.”