March 6, 2007 — -- Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which allows anyone in the world to contribute and edit content, has found itself in the midst of another controversy, and its critics are not at all surprised. This latest scandal, at one of the Web's most viewed sites, involves a prominent editor who forged his credentials and faked having a doctorate.
The editor, known by the moniker Essjay, described himself on his user profile as "a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States." In reality, Ryan Jordan was a 24-year-old community college dropout from Kentucky who relied on sources like "Catholicism for Dummies" when correcting articles.
Wikipedia prides itself on being an open-source encyclopedia that allows users to vet and edit content, but apparently no one vets its editors.
The encyclopedia also made headlines last month when the history department at Middlebury College announced that it had banned students from citing articles found on the Web site in academic papers.
Don Wyatt, chairman of Middlebury's history department, said he was not surprised to learn of the scandal at Wikipedia.
"The main reason we distrust it," said professor Wyatt, "is that it's an open source. It's subject to too many hands in its editing and, as such, errors abound."
"People like Jordan," he said, "can create whole personas that are distortions and misrepresentations of who they really are. Hopefully, this sort of incident will lead to greater professionalization in terms of screening individuals."
But according to Charles Matthews -- a volunteer editor who estimates he has worked on some 100,000 articles -- the lack of professionals is the site's greatest strength.
Speaking from London, Matthews said those volunteers who come to the site to edit and contribute are assumed to be acting "in good faith."
"The success of Wikipedia," he said, "disproves its critics. It grows in size at 1 percent a week and is the No. 10 Web site in the world."
Matthews said he considers Jordan's deception "unfortunate but comprehensible" and that the use of handles and anonymous postings is par for the Internet. He said there was mixed reaction among users, with many feeling deceived but others willing to forgive an editor he described as "a good guy and hard worker."
Despite the open door policy for new editors, Sandra Ordonez, a spokesperson for the site, told ABCNEWS.com, "In the future, we will do more inquiring into the identity of people of trust."
The controversy recently came to light when The New Yorker magazine wrote an addendum to a piece it ran in July 2006 profiling Essjay. When later pressed by the magazine, Jordan revealed he was "24 and holds no advanced degrees, and that he was never taught."
Soon after he was outed, Jordan resigned as a contributor to the site. His user page now has a black banner that reads "retired." A posting signed by Essjay reads, "My comments here will be short and to the point: I'm no longer taking part here. I have received an astounding amount of support, especially by e-mail, but it's time to go."
In a statement posted to his own user page, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales accepted Essjay's resignation and apology and wrote: "Wikipedia is built on (among other things) twin pillars of trust and tolerance. The integrity of the project depends on the core community being passionate about quality and integrity, so that we can trust each other. The harmony of our work depends on human understanding and forgiveness of errors."