Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Putting Essjay's Fraud into Perspective

I have done my level best to avoid posting yet another entry on the XODP Blog about the Wikipedian impostor known as Essjay, limiting myself to commentary on other blogs and on Wikipedia itself. However, I was very impressed with a post on Miland Brown's World History Blog that seemed to put the larger issue of Wikipedia's reliability into perspective:
". . . [T]his kind of deception is not new and is not limited to Wikipedia. Does anyone remember Jayson Blair? He both plagiarized and fabricated articles at the New York Times for several years. I do not think Blair has proven that the New York Times is a bad resource though despite his fraud.

"And let's not forget about Stephen Glass at the New Republic. 27 of 41 stories written by Glass for the magazine contained fabricated material. He wrote such fake gems as a 15 year old at national hacker convention and a Church of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jesus Christ. I still like the New Republic as a resource despite the Glass incident.

"People fabricating degrees is not new either. The Chronicle of Higher Education frequently exposes people in higher education with diploma mill degrees. For example, history adjunct Fred Ruhlman at the University of Tennessee was reported at Cliopatria, '(His) 'doctorate' is from 'the American University of London,' a notorious diploma mill and his book, Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison, was withdrawn from publication by the University of Tennessee Press because of its plagiarism from William Marvel's Andersonville: The Last Depot.' While embarrassing for the University of Tennessee, it hardly means UT degrees are now worthless.

"I can find those fake Blair articles in my library right now in the microfilm versions of the New York Times. Those fake Glass articles from the New Republic are still in the bound periodical section of the library too. However, every edit Essjay has made is being examined and altered if it is found to be problematic. Unlike the mainstream press who have their mistakes archived forever in libraries, Wikipedia can be fixed when the fraud is discovered."
In a previous blog post, I qualified my hope that I would like to see Essjay make a fresh start at Wikipedia under a new anonymous pseudonym with the disclaimer that such a fresh start was not possible unless Essjay recants his assertion that he was offered compensation by Stacy Schiff of The New Yorker. However, I am inclined to reconsider that disclaimer in light of new facts brought to light by the Wikipedia Signpost:
"Based on earlier statements he made, it is possible that [Essjay] used calling cards to phone Schiff for the interview, and his claim may have referred to an offer to reimburse the cost of those calls. . . . Schiff's response [i.e., "That is nonsense."] did not address whether this alternate interpretation was correct."
As a (hopefully) final note, I encountered a comment on one blog that explained to me why some people seem to be judging Wikipedia's credibility so harshly in light of Essjay's fraud:
". . . [T]rusting Wikipedia is . . . a greater personal risk than trusting the New Yorker, regardless of whether the New Yorker is actually more trustworthy than Wikipedia. . . [T]he New Yorker’s puffery about its fact-checking effectively indemnifies [someone] against the risk of looking foolish, in a way that Wikipedia does not. . . .

"This sort of indemnification is precisely what professional journalists are defending when they rudely dismiss blogs–or Wikipedia–as inferior. Rather than make serious, careful comparisons between themselves and alternative information sources–comparisons that would inevitably show themselves to be seriously flawed in their own right–they emphasize the process by which they gather and vet their content."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, let's put Essjay's fraud into perspective: He's a young man who did a foolish thing. His decision to "come out" was obviously made with consulting Jimbo.

Now let's put Jimbo's actions in perspective: Prior to hiring Essjay and promoting him to the wikipedia supreme court, he knew 90% of the story, at least. Jimbo needs to take more responsibility for his part in this mess.

One thing I've noticed Jimbo doing a lot is responding to honest dissension with phrases like ...don't troll me.... I've seen this several times. Jimbo has to learn that intolerance of dissenting views will not serve him in the long run.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007 4:16:00 PM  
Blogger Internet Esquire said...

As I've stated elsewhere, I think that what Jimbo knew about Essjay and when he knew it are irrelevant, as Jimbo apologized, asked for Essjay's resignation, and is now is in the process of soliciting feedback on how to improve the system. On this note, the only people worthy of note who still seem to be focused on finding fault with Jimbo on this particular issue are Larry Sanger and Daniel Brandt. I don't consider either of these people trolls, but traditional wisdom advises that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007 4:54:00 PM  
Blogger Pawlina said...

You make a good point in contrasting the perceived personal risk of citing the New Yorker vs Wikipedia.

However, it appears Wikipedia is trying to establish a level of credibility equal to traditional mainstream sources. So if contributors want to play the same credentials card at Wikipedia to support their position, I think Wikipedia is quite justified in adopting the same rules.

Thursday, March 08, 2007 1:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily put fault with the fact checker. I think that it is natural to expect a web site to maintain the accuracy of the data that is presented in it. Without this obligation, or some approximation of it, the Internet is totally worthless.

Saturday, March 10, 2007 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From 10 things you did not know about Wikipedia:
6. We don't want you to trust us.

Good Wikipedia articles are accompanied by liberal references and citations. Readers are encouraged to verify the contents of the article for themselves.

Essjay made his claims on his user page, which is no more or less trustworthy than a blog or personal website. That is to say, you should only trust it as much as you trust the author. And since we don't want you to trust us, that isn't very much.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007 4:49:00 AM  

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