Saturday, March 10, 2007

Credentialism

So, in the wake of the Essjay scandal, the whole issue of Wikipedians claiming credentials has become a topic of rather a lot of discussion.

One of Sanger's long disagreements with Wikipedia has been over Wikipedia's failure to recognize credentials. Citizendum has long had policies designed to give those having credentials special status as editors; recently, Citizendum withdrew the "honor principle" regarding credentials in Citizendum: Citizendium editors will now be required to validate their identities and credentials. Larry denies that the Essjay situation was involved, which I think is not entirely true, but anyway....

Still, the main topic of discussion has to be Jimbo's proposal regarding credentialing. Although which one to discuss: this one, where he suggests that degree-holders might fax a copy to the Foundation office? (Danny runs screaming to the hills, dreading the thousands of faxes of Damnation University diplomas that would invitably result.) Or this older one? Or this one (which appears to be the most recent Jimbo proposal), which (horrors of all horrors) authorizes the creation of a "This user has a Ph.D." userbox, linked to a subpage that lets people describe their attempts to verify the holder's claims of their credentials.

I submit that Jimbo has completely missed the boat here. Wikipedia should not care if you're credentialed. Credentialing creates a stratified, classful editing culture based on something that doesn't relate all that well to editing competency. It's not a structure that will help Wikipedians write an encyclopedia -- although it is one that will help some people win petty combats over article content. The only good that verified credentials do is provide some vague smattering of reason to believe that when someone says "This claim is bollocks" they're right -- and Wikipedia already has a better way to deal with that, that avoids all the issues associated with credentialing: sources.

Quite simply, if you're going to assert that something is true based on your credentials, you should stop and instead assert that it is true based on a source -- which, as a credentialed academic, you should be able to produce with relative ease. This works even for statements which are "generally accepted by experts in the field" because such statements are invariably made in introductory-level textbooks in that field, which most academics in that field would be familiar with, or at least be able to put their hands on without much difficulty. This may make editing "less fun" because you can't just go "Hey, I know that" and spew out three paragraghs of unsourced claims that you know are true but can't convince anyone else of, but hey, nobody ever said that writing an encyclopedia was easy. Letting people get off without proper sourcing got Wikipedia to 1,678,137 crapitcles; getting Wikipedia to half a million good articles is going to be a lot harder. (Really does remind me of writing open source software: it's easy to throw together a hunk of code that does something vaguely interesting, but both much harder and much less fun to turn that into a finished, polished product, which is why so many open source projects never make it much past version 0.2 or so.)

This solves the credentialing problem without actually requiring anybody to provide or verify credentials. With this asserted as practice, the only remaining issue is how to deal with someone who asserts something based on a claim of "expert credentials". And that's simple: demand them produce a source.

So, Jimbo, please stop talking about credentialing. It's the wrong solution to a problem that doesn't actually exist, simply because the community has already solved it. The solution to Essjay's use of falsified credentials is not to provide a mechanism for verifying such claims, but instead to remind the community that such claims don't meet with Wikipedia's pre-existing verification requirements and cannot be used to win debate. Enforce the policy Wikipedia already has; don't make bad new policy just to smooth over a PR flap.