Contributor scandal rocks Wikipedia

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Contributor scandal rocks Wikipedia

'Essjay' episode could change makeup of user-driven encyclopaedia.

A recent scandal involving the fabricated identity of a Wikipedia editor is causing some to rethink the way in which user-driven sites should evaluate content. 

The concern stems from the story of a Wikipedia contributor known as 'Essjay' who served as an editor and moderator for the online encyclopaedia.

Wikipedia gathers all its content from public submissions which are edited and maintained by volunteer editors who are also responsible for settling disputes between users and cleaning up vandalised web pages.

Essjay claimed on his Wikipedia user page to be a tenured theology professor at a private American university.

The claim was met with little doubt and the perceived expert became the author and moderator for a number of entries on religion and theology.

However, on following up a July article in which Essjay was quoted, the New Yorker discovered that the respected member of the Wikipedia community was actually a 24 year-old man with no formal theology degree

The resulting fallout led many to question the validity of Wikipedia, and ended in Essjay resigning his post and leaving the site.

In a parting statement Essjay said: "Leaving is the best thing for me and for Wikipedia. I walk away happy to be free to go about other things."

The scandal has led Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to consider implementing a system to separate recognised experts in a given field from enthusiasts with no credentials.

"I made a proposal that we have a system whereby people who are willing to verify their real name and credentials are allowed a special Verified Credential notification. This could be a rather open ended system, and optional," Wales said in an article for Wikipedia's public mailing list.

Nicholas Carr, author of Does IT Matter, added: "In the wake of the Essjay mess, Wikipedia's long-time 'anti-credentialist' philosophy is beginning to crack." 

Carr suggested in a personal blog entry that users have long considered information in Wikipedia separate from the 'credentialing' standards of the outside world.

"Many of Wikipedia's most eloquent advocates have argued that the encyclopaedia's practice of judging an author's work solely on its own merits without being influenced by the author's credentials is one of the project's core strengths, both ideologically and practically," he wrote.

If the site does impose a system for separating recognised experts from regular users, it could change the way in which the site runs, according to Carr.

"Once you impose a credentialing system, even if it's 'optional', you change the dynamic of an organisation and set it on a new course," he explained.

"No longer would 'the answer' be 'simple'; deference would begin to be granted to contributors based on their academic degrees and other 'verified' credentials, as well as to their contributions."
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