"Essjay," a frequent Wikipedia contributor, claimed to be a theology professor. Last week, The New Yorker magazine, having interviewed Essjay for an article about Wikipedia last year, revealed that he was a 24-year-old with no advanced degrees.
In the wake of the scandal, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has proposed reviving a proposal he put forth two years ago. He suggests that Wikipedia adopt a system similar to Amazon's Real Names initiative for user reviews.
Wikipedians would still be allowed to be anonymous if they wish, but those who want to be identified as having "Verified Credentials" would have to submit reasonable proof.
"The point is to make sure that people are being honest with us and with the general public," says Wales on his Wikipedia User Talk page. "If you don't care to tell us that you are a PhD (or that you are not), then that's fine: your editing stands or falls on its own merit. But if you do care to represent yourself as something, you have to be able to prove it."
Wales admits such a system would not be perfect. People, he says, "could fake their credentials, but I don't think we need to design against some mad, worst case scenario."
Interestingly, a statement from the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that oversees Wikipedia, argues against the relevance of credentials as an indication of authority: "Content is, and have [sic] always been, judged based on its quality, and not the credential of the individual contributor. As such, the community is discouraging people from arguing from positions of authority. Arguing from authority to prove a point would never be accepted in academic paper and should never be accepted in Wikipedia."
This position appears to be inconsistent with Wales' proposal to verify credentials. As a Wikipedia user known as "WODUP" points out, "If one's editing stands on its own merit, why should the resources be spent to prove credentials to others?"