Wikipedia's Not the Net Police

The online encyclopedia says it will verify contributors' credentials, but the job of monitoring Internet honesty belongs to all of us

Responding to a recent brouhaha over a contributor's false diploma, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales announced that contributors' professional credentials will be verified from now on. But why? And by whom?

Human beings' desire to make ourselves seem like more than we are is part of our hard wiring. And I don't think it's up to Wikipedia to change it.

Calling oneself a professor with a doctoral degree when one is actually a 24-year-old college dropout is a lie. So is plagiarism. Both lying and stealing have been going on since before there was language. And both will continue. Now user-generated sites like Wikipedia provide new and better tools to make deception easier.

Jimmy Wales, for all his good intentions, can't stop that. Nor should he try. Here are two plagiarism cases to demonstrate why Wales' attempt at fact-checking is a losing battle.

Plagiarism Unpunished

In 1985, Emily Dickinson scholar and author Dorothy Oberhaus claims to have had her PhD thesis, "The Religious Voice of Emily Dickinson," ripped off almost in its entirety by Jane Eberwein, who reworked the text in one sabbatical year and published it as her only book on Dickinson.

When Oberhaus protested to the Emily Dickinson International Society (where Eberwein has been a board member), to the book's publisher, and to the Modern Language Assn., with exhaustive proof of the plagiarism, she was told to take it up with Eberwein.

Says Oberhaus, "In other words, they were saying to a woman who has been raped, 'Sorry, dear, talk to your rapist!'" A quarter century later, Oberhaus' plagiarist continues to claim credit for the true scholar's work, even when the two appear at the same conferences.

At least Oberhaus knows whom to accuse. These days, it's hard to know who is stealing from you, or accusing you of stealing intellectual property. Online thieves have more tools at their fingertips, as the second example demonstrates.

Rudner Rip-Off?

The announcement of the prizes in the contest promoting Karen Quinn's novel Wife in the Fast Lane (Touchstone, 2007)—a contest I produced and promoted via blog advertising—is embroiled in a scandal involving Wikipedia. It proves that people who want to cheat will always find a way.

I'm sure the kerfuffle could provide Quinn with a plot for her next novel. It involves not only Wikipedia and plagiarism but also hoaxes, mockery, bloggers, vote-stuffing, cloaked e-mail addresses, false identities, comedian Rita Rudner, and a lot of housewives.

More than 750 people entered Quinn's contest with one-liners, essays, and videos describing their lives in the fast lane. The top 10 finalists in each category were selected by a group of volunteer judges. Then the public selected winners from among the finalists and the fun began in earnest.

Quinn was about to announce the winners when an e-mail arrived, accusing the winner of plagiarizing comic Rita Rudner. As proof, it linked to a Wikipedia entry that contained the quote submitted by the contest entrant.

Loser's Ploy

With just a little amateur sleuthing, it was easy to learn that the quote was added two hours before the finger-pointing e-mail was sent. Nonetheless, just to be sure, Quinn contacted Rudner herself, who confirmed that the contest entry hadn't been stolen from her material.

And then—poof!—the Wikipedia quote disappeared. Without naming names, it's clear that it was a not-too-clever plot by someone who's clearly a loser to wrest the prize from its rightful owner.

The true winner, who says she never heard of Ms. Rudner, swore her entry was original and was aghast at the idea of ripping off another person’s published work: "That's like breaking one of the Ten Commandments."

Age of the Fake

Sadly, not everyone who posts to Wikipedia is concerned with the Ten Commandments. Some are concerned with revenge. Some with self-aggrandizement. Some just have nothing better to do.

We live in an age of fake IDs, fake money, fake e-mails, fake URLs, fake IP addresses, and fake votes, where anyone can print or claim anything—or enter it in Wikipedia. But none of these frauds negate the value of Wikipedia. Nor do they mean that Jimmy Wales has to become the Internet's chief of police, because Wikipedia is working just the way it's supposed to.

Wikipedia entries are meant to be edited by members of the community. And in the long run, the truth will win out. Because the community, sooner or later, polices itself. And when it doesn't, it's the responsibility of those who are wrongly cited to correct the entry and/or out the spoiler.

It's Up to Us

Like it or not, it's your responsibility and mine to monitor what's being said about us online. We each have to make time for reputation management the same way we made time for e-mail, blogging, instant messaging, and the thousand other bits of information that interrupt, overload, educate, enlighten, annoy, captivate, scare, thrill, and delight us.

Wikipedia isn't the policeman of the Internet, nor could it be. Not even with 10,000 "fact checkers" and all the good intentions in the world.

So that brings it back to each of us. We have to pay attention, settle our own scores, and sadly, not always come out winners. Just like offline.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.