Essjay, the Ersatz Academic

Back in July, Stacy Schiff of The New Yorker profiled a Wikipedia administrator called Essjay as part of a sprawling piece on the open-source encyclopedia. To many scholars who read the piece, Essjay was a fascinating figure — a "tenured professor of religion at a private university" who not only edited articles on penitential rites and transubstantiation but also corrected errors in Wikipedia's write-up of Justin Timberlake.

But as it turns out, Essjay's story was a bit too good to be true. In fact, the Wikipedia editor doesn't even hold a doctorate: He's a 24-year-old named Ryan Jordan, and he has never taught a class in his life, according to WebProNews. (Mr. Jordan was recently hired by Wikia, a for-profit Web venture associated with Wikipedia.)

On his own Wikipedia "user talk" page, Mr. Jordan apologized, but said he created the false identity to protect him from critics who make a point to publicize the names of Wikipedia contributors. Some Wikipedians were quick to offer support to Essjay, but others were harshly critical. A few people even suggested Mr. Jordan be banned from posting to the encyclopedia.

But Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedian whose opinion matters the most, strongly defended the beleaguered editor. "EssJay has always been, and still is, a fantastic editor and trusted member of the community," wrote Wikipedia's chief. "He has been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter, and I consider it settled."

Like most of the controversies that swirl around Wikipedia, the incident has wider ramifications than a simple personal dispute. Mr. Wales is right that Essjay's autobiographical fabrications don't change the quality of his contributions to the site. And it would seem like an overreach for a site that thrives on anonymous editing to ban someone for misrepresenting his or her identity. But the incident is clearly damaging to Wikipedia's credibility — especially with professors who will now note that one of the site's most visible academics has turned out to be a fraud. –Brock Read

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