Wikipedia readers interested in higher education, student loans, and related topics in the United States might be interested to know why so many Wikipedia pages rely so heavily on law professor Michael Simkovic’s paper “Risk-Based Student Loans.” The same goes for those interested in the future of legal education, given Simkovic’s prominence in that field.
A few examples:
- The page on the “National Defense Education Act” cites “Risk-Based Student Loans” as evidence that the act “followed a growing national sense that U.S. scientists were falling behind scientists in the Soviet Union, catalyzed, arguably, by early Soviet success in the Space Race, notably the launch of the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, the previous year.”
- The first paragraph of “Bankruptcy Discharge” ends with the statement, “Discharge is also believed to play an important role in credit markets by encouraging lenders, who may be more sophisticated and have better information than debtors, to monitor debtors and limit risk-taking,” and then cites “Risk-Based Student Loans.”
- The “Higher Education Act of 1965” ends with a citation to Simkovic’s work as well. “The HEA has been criticized for establishing statutory pricing of federal student loans based on political considerations rather than pricing based on risk.”
- In “Human Capital,” “Risk-Based Student Loans” tells us, “According to signaling theory, education does not lead to increased human capital, but rather acts as a mechanism by which workers with superior innate abilities can signal those abilities to prospective employers and so gain above average wages.”
- “Student Loans in the United States” contains six references to “Risk-Based Student Loans.” Here’s one:
Both subsidized and unsubsidized loans are guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Education either directly or through guaranty agencies. Nearly all students are eligible to receive federal loans (regardless of credit score or other financial issues). Federal student loans are not priced according to any individualized measure of risk, nor are loan limits determined based on risk. Rather, pricing and loan limits are politically determined by Congress. Undergraduates typically receive lower interest rates, but graduate students typically can borrow more. This lack of risk-based pricing has been criticized by scholars as contributing to inefficiency in higher education. [Emphasis added.]
A variation on the higher education bubble theory suggests that there is no general bubble in higher education—that is, on average, higher education really does boost income and employment by more than enough to make it a good investment—but that degrees in some specific fields may be overvalued because they do little to boost income or improve job prospects, while degrees in other fields may in fact be undervalued because students do not appreciate the extent to which these degrees could benefit their employment prospects and future income. Proponents of this theory have noted that schools charge equal prices for tuition regardless of what students study, the interest rate on federal student loans is not adjusted according to risk, and there is evidence that undergraduate students in their first 3 years of college are not very good at predicting future wages by major. [Underlined & italicized emphasis added.]
As of Sunday, April 19, 2015, I’ve found at least 13 pages on Wikipedia that cite “Risk-Based Student Loans.” I don’t intend to find them all.
I discovered the edits after one of them popped out to me. Readers will probably agree that many of the citations appear to be either (a) statements for which “Risk-Based Student Loans” at best serves as a tertiary source, or (b) interpolations into the articles that promote “Risk-Based Student Loans” more than inform the reader on the topic. After sleuthing one of these page’s history sections, and then using Wikipedia’s cruelly titled “WikiBlame” feature to establish who altered these pages, I traced them to two anonymous IP addresses: 108.46.277.251 (May 5, 2012, through May 10, 2012, by my interpretation) and 18.104.22.168 (May 15, 2012, through June 11, 2012). Both are located in Midtown Manhattan, and the links include lists of the altered pages. Most of the edits occurred by May 15.
The current pages have benefited from nearly three years of improvement (although it’s troubling that so many of the pages’ headers carry content alerts given the topics’ importance), but the initial edits evidenced surprising devotion to Simkovic’s work, especially since he wasn’t so prominent then. For instance “Student Loan” received as many as twenty-one citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans,” and twenty were added to Student Loans in the United States. Sometimes it appears as the very first authority listed.
Here’s “Student Loan” early on May 5, 2012:
Click to enlarge. It’s unclear why the citation date is 2013.
Click to enlarge.
The intensity of the edits quickly caught the eyes of some Wikipedia editors. On the evening of May 5, 2012, editor ElKevbo contacted whom I’ll call “Simkovic’s Fan” to inform him (yes, he’s a dude) that using an unreviewed, “self-published source” ran afoul of Wikipedia policies. At the time, “Risk-Based Student Loans” had not been published in an academic journal. Simkovic’s Fan defended his namesake, claiming Simkovic was “an established bankruptcy and credit scholar” with numerous prominent publications to his name. ElKevbo asked to continue the discussion on the Talk page for “Student Loans in the United States,” and added, “I object to widespread use of an unpublished work that has not undergone any sort of peer review.”
There, the dialogue resumed with ElKevbo reiterating that if “Risk-Based Student Loans” stood for the propositions for which Simkovic’s Fan claimed, then more appropriate sources would be available. ElKevbo also condemned “the manner in which this unregistered editor is attempting to ram these edits through without consensus.” Editor Nstrauss also criticized Simkovic’s Fan for un-reverting the restored article to replace his numerous citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans.” (Nstrauss refers to Simkovic’s Fan as “the anon Virginia editor.” I believe that’s a reference to the location of Simkovic’s Fan’s Internet service provider, Verizon, which is in Virginia. The IP address was in New York City.)
Undaunted, Simkovic’s Fan continued inserting citations to “Risk-Based Student Loans” in various related articles. No other Wikipedia editors appear to have noticed the widespread changes.
I’ll be upfront, I suspect Simkovic’s Fan is in fact Michael Simkovic, given the location of the IP addresses and the fact that it’s highly implausible that anyone would have read “Risk-Based Student Loans” in mid-2012 and been so convinced by it as to regard it as a comprehensive, Wiki-worthy treatise on higher education, student loans, bankruptcy, etc. I also think only Simkovic would exaggerate his prominence as “an established bankruptcy and credit scholar.” I’m open to alternative candidates.
There are a few reasons I’m raising this discovery.
One, I have no desire to become an expert on Wikipedia policies, but “Risk-Based Student Loans” is probably inappropriate for nearly all the statements it purports to validate. Wikipedia prefers its articles to be based on secondary sources. Going by its title and abstract, “Risk-Based Student Loans” is not, for example, a secondary source on the National Defense Education Act or signaling theory. In these contexts, “Risk-Based Student Loans” is a tertiary source and it should be substituted for better ones. Moreover, as tertiary sources go, it may not be a neutral one.
Two, many of the remaining citations use passively voiced or weasely worded phrases that just advance Simkovic’s arguments in “Risk-Based Student Loans,” as in “Student Loans in the United States” or “Higher Education Bubble.” When properly rephrased these aren’t “scholars'” or “proponents'” consensus opinions; rather, they’re Simkovic’s, and his positions on these issues are probably too specialized to be relevant to the articles’ topics.
The only place “Risk-Based Student Loans” really ought to be cited is in articles on risk-based lending, and arguably Simkovic is not a sufficiently noteworthy scholar for his opinions to appear there—and certainly not as the first citation. Again, it may not pass Wikipedia’s neutrality requirements.
Three, Simkovic’s Fan has disserved Simkovic’s research efforts by concealing the sources “Risk-Based Student Loans” relies on to make its arguments. To the extent that those authors’ points are relevant to the altered articles’ topics, they are the ones who should be cited, not Simkovic. Simkovic’s Fan should not have treated “Risk-Based Student Loans” as a comprehensive secondary source on anything.
Four, it’s more believable than not that Simkovic himself is the one who in 2012 edited Wikipedia to promote his own expertise and scholarship. If so, he certainly overstepped Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policies on self-citation in a shamefully vain and unprofessional manner, particularly for the reasons stated in the previous point and given ElKevbo’s objection that “Risk-Based Student Loans” hadn’t even been published yet. If true, Simkovic should apologize, and Wikipedia’s editors should reevaluate all references to his article.
Five, I’m not knowledgeable about law schools’ or universities’ policies regarding their instructors’ activities on Wikipedia or similar venues, but even if Simkovic’s Fan happens to not be Simkovic, I really hope academics absorb the lesson established here of watching how their work is used in publicly available Web sites like Wikipedia. Hopefully Wikipedia will also do a better job of monitoring wanton edits to its articles and tighten its requirements on secondary and tertiary sources so other academics’ works aren’t misused this way again.
Finally, I acknowledge that this post might be construed as an “off-wiki attack” of Simkovic that Wikipedians may perceive as harmful to their community. I believe, however, that the harm is minimal given that the edits are nearly three years old and Simkovic’s Fan was not a registered user. I also will not edit any of Simkovic’s Fan’s citations myself.
Even though I’m not the topic of this article, I stipulate that I have never and do not intend to alter any Wikipedia pages to promote this blog, my articles on The American Lawyer, or anything else I have written or will write. I also take this time to thank those who have linked to my work in Wikipedia pages. It means a lot to me that my readers consider my work noteworthy enough for citation for the masses.
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