Another swipe was taken at Wikipedia this week when it was revealed that one of the main volunteer editors of the free online encyclopedia was a fraud. Specifically, one Ryan Jordan from Kentucky worked under the pseudonym Essjay on the site, lying about his identity and academic credentials (he has none), editing articles he wasn’t qualified to edit, and adjudicating issues of which he had no knowledge.
Much of Jordan’s fraudulent work has been excised from Wikipedia now, but he did edit many pages on Catholicism and religion. Careful readers of those pages would have detected several errors and hints that should have tipped off people to his lack of knowledge and competence. However, the massive undertaking that is Wikipedia makes it virtually impossible to catch every gaff and error and even more difficult to suss out such determined fraud.
Ironically, I tried to correct several mistakes in related pages (namely those concerning the so-called argument from intelligent design, which fails to point out that proponents commit a basic logical fallacy). I actually pointed this out to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in an interview I did with him a while back, which you can read at J-Q.com. In the interview, Wales admits that pranks and fraud do occur on Wikipedia, but that in general it eventually gets corrected. (Following the Jordan scandal, Wales has proposed tightening up some of Wikipedia’s checks and balances.)
Talking to Wales, I found he was an affable guy with a persistently positive attitude. I still believe his project’s goals and mission are to be commended. The Wikipedia has come a long way, and remains a valuable resource for many people. Moreover, such fraud is not unique to volunteer projects like Wikipedia. For example, Jordan tricked The New Yorker magazine as well, where the miscreant was falsely described as a “tenured professor of religion at a private university.”
My personal opinion? Journalists like myself have to deal with such deception every day. Experience and hard work checking sources uncovers most of it; I prefer actually testing products and technologies before writing about them, as well. However, you simply can’t prevent every person that is determined to deceive from committing fraud. In this case, I hope that the fraud will preclude Jordan from ever holding a real academic position. Of course, I also realize that there is little to prevent him from assuming yet another false identity and fooling people again.
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