Is Wikipedia Dying?
March 12th 2007
by Dan Nicolae Alexa
The recent scandal involving a false-eminent theology professor rekindled criticism about plagiarism and fake credentials that plague the popular site.
Wikipedia, which was launched as an English language project on January 15, 2001 as a complement to the expert-written and now defunct Nupedia, has grown into one of the biggest virtual communities in the world, with faithful and enthusiastic members, all driven by the noble purpose of making information accessible freely to any one at any time.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares the same noble ideas and vandalism started to affect posts on Wikipedia right after its online debut. Posts that contained racist, untrue or religiously-fanatic comments began pouring in, without a viable way from Wiki officials to strengthen control over users’ opinions or claims.
This allowed a 24-year old college dropout, Ryan Jordan, to deceive the trust of Wikipedia users by portraying himself as a prominent theology professor, thus becoming one of the most respected members of the Wiki community, with more than 20,000 pages of information edited under the pseudo “Essjay”. He 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. It was later discovered that he actually used Catholicism for Dummies to write his “influential” work.
Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia.org, called for an immediate and thorough verification of users’ credentials, in a system elaborated by him two years ago, but which only got attention now in the light of the new scandal. The verification consists in fax copies of users’ diplomas sent to Wikipedia’s offices and supplementary check-up made by a “circle of trust,” lead by an already-proven trusted individual. According to NY Times, Mr. Wales said he thought that some version of his proposal would begin on the site “in a week.”
But Florence Devouard, Mr. Wales’s successor as the head of Wikimedia Foundation board, was quoted by NY Times as saying 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.
In response, Wales wrote on his personal page that "We always prefer to give a positive incentive rather than absolute prohibition, so that people can contribute without a lot of hassle".
Essjay’s true identity came out when he joined Wikia, 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.
During an interview taken in Tokyo, where he will be staying for about a month, Wales said that “It's a bit of a mess.We're not happy about it. 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.”
Besides contributing thousands of articles to the popular Web encyclopedia, Jordan had recently been promoted to arbitrator, a position for trusted members of the community. Arbitrators have the possibility to overrule an edit made by another volunteer or even block vandals who abuse the site.
Wales himself has been the victim of false or malicious comments on Wikipedia: "When I read the story of my life on Wikipedia, I think it’s quite funny and odd because major parts of my life aren't mentioned. For a short period of time someone wrote in the article about me, ‘In his spare time he enjoys playing chess with his friends.’ It's not a very vicious thing to say, it just happens to not be true," he said.
Currently Wikipedia has more than 5 million articles in many languages, including more than 1.4 million in the English-language version. There are 250 language editions of Wikipedia, and 17 of them have more than 50,000 articles each.
The recent scandal erodes even more Wikipedia’s credibility especially in the academic environment. Middlebury College's history department banned the use of Wikipedia citations in exams or papers, because an error about Japanese history- since corrected- showed up in several exams.
There have also been attempts to use Wikipedia as a phishing tool. Last year, malevolent hackers booby-trapped one of its pages and used it for a phishing attack against unsuspecting users of the site.
The attackers created a Wikipedia page that promised a Windows security update for a supposedly new version of the Lovesan/W32.Blaster worm and pointed to an external site with the seemingly authentic domain wikipedia-download.org.
A critic of an online encyclopedia written and edited by its users had also identified dozens of biographical articles that appear to contain passages lifted from other sites, prompting the encyclopedia's administrators to delete several pending a review, according to an Associated Press article from November 2006.
Daniel Brandt found the examples of suspected plagiarism at Wikipedia using a program he created to run a few sentences from about 12,000 articles against Google's search engine. He removed matches in which another site appeared to be copying from Wikipedia and examples in which material is in the public domain and was properly attributed.
He ended up bringing 142 articles to Wikipedia’s attention.
The site's founder, Jimmy Wales, acknowledged that plagiarized passages occasionally slip in, but he dismissed Brandt's findings as exaggerated.
Concerning the recent scandals, Jimmy Wales had this to add: “we’ll probably just discourage them from prominently featuring their credentials. 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."
From Wales’ point of view, "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."