Should Judges Cite Wikipedia?

from the seems-a-bit-problematic dept

With Wikipedia becoming more popular every day, apparently it was only a matter of time before various judges started citing the ever-changeable online encyclopedia in their decisions. In fact, the article notes that one case was later overturned when a higher court had problems with the lower court’s use of Wikipedia — though, ironically, to make their point, they too cited Wikipedia (though, they focused on the site’s disclaimers, which are just as editable as any other page so present the same problem the lower court supposedly had in citing them). It appears that most judges that cite Wikipedia do so on mostly unimportant matters, to fill in details or explanations on issues that are not central to the decision-making. This makes sense. As useful a tool as Wikipedia is, it does seem a little problematic to use it directly as a citation, since one purpose of the citation is to allow others to go back and check it. With Wikipedia, you can’t guarantee that the same content will be there. If judges made sure to cite a specific instance of a Wikipedia page and make sure that it was easy to get to, that makes more sense (though, that would then raise questions if a later revision to the page corrected an error that the judge relied on). It seems like as with just about anything having to do with Wikipedia, it is quite useful as one source among many to get information, but it shouldn’t be trusted as the only source on which to make major decisions.

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Comments on “Should Judges Cite Wikipedia?”

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Nicko says:

Even Wikipedia doesn't think so...

Just as you don’t cite the librarian for pointing you to a good source of information at the research desk, you don’t use wikipedia as a source for research.

Wikipedia does not contain original research. Thus one should never cite wikipedia, but in turn cite the works referenced by the article.

As a non-accredited, and non-scholarly, source of information – such as article summaries, digests, editorial commentary – wikipedia provides a useful ‘jumping off point’ for research, but no more then that.

Araemo says:

Citing wikipedia isn't that hard...

While using Wikipedia as an authoritative source is basically impossible, and shouldn’t be done. It is easy to cite a specific version of an entry.

and see:

Special:Cite allows you to enter an entry name, and wikipedia will grab the current version, and give you a URL(As well as MLA- and APA-style citations) to that specific version, that you can click on and double check that it is the one you read.. and then anyone who uses that exact URL sees the exact page you cited.

The reason it cannot be used as an authoritative source.. well, one reason anyways.. is that you could go in, edit a page to look how you wanted, and then cite that version before it gets reverted.

Araemo says:

Regarding the issue at hand...

If I’m not mistaken, court testimony requires a ‘first hand knowledge’.

Wikipedia is basically entirely second hand knowledge. As such, it would be inadmissible in anything where hearsay is not admissible.. if I am understanding things correctly. IANAL however, but I do think for minor issues, where ‘he says she said such and such’ is ok, because it really doesn’t factor into the decision, then wikipedia should be at least as reliable as unverifiable ‘so and so told me’.

Suzerain says:

Re: Regarding the issue at hand...

No, scholarly articles are an exception to the hearsay rule you are referencing. This exception to the hearsay rule is premised on the supposed reliability of a scholarly article. Other exceptions to the hearsay rule include governent records and medical records. There is some indication of reliability to these records that allow them to be introduced into evidence.

These are exceptions to the confrontation rule. A party has a right to question witnesses and challenge evidence in court.

A problem with Wikipedia exists because of exactly this reason. What if I am involved in a class action lawsuit for securities fraud against a corporation. I try and introduce a wikipedia article as evidence because it bolsters my claim that the company knew or should have known they were acting fraudulently. What if I are someone else I knew had edited that page? What if someone with an ax to grind put in false information?

These articles contain no inherent trait of reliability. I would argue this prevents it from being admissible in evidence.

This problem is an issue with all references to scholarly articles. It is like the infamous footnote in Brown v. Board where the Supreme Court cited sociology studies that showed seperate but equal had an adverse effect on minorities self-esteem. The problem was the studies were later contridicted. One of the foundations of this important decision was wiped out because of a reference to a study.

Anonymous Coward says:

So books are not edited and re-published? This is a “velocity” problem, not something fundamentally different…

Mike, I’d think with all of your “Internet does not make X different” posts related to pedophilia or whatever that you’d be the first to catch this.

Information changes over time. Courts must “freeze” the COPY of the information they are citing. All sources have varying degrees of credibility. If/when a cited source changes, then a new court case (or appeal or whatever) must re-evaluate.

There! Didn’t use the word “wikipedia” anywhere in the preceding paragraph. Still all true statements. Wikipedia just “holds a magnifying glass” over an already existing phenomena.

DCX2 says:

If they want to cite Wikipedia because it’s convenient to explain a term, then I don’t see the problem in that.

The whole “butbutbut anyone can edit it” thing is moot if you actually use the Talk and History pages, newbs.

Now, if the judge tries to say “But according to Wikipedia, life begins at contraception, therefore abortion is murder”, there’s a problem.

But, if the judge says

“For those unfamiliar with the term, Intact Dilation and Extraction is usually known as Partial Birth Abortion[1]…

[1] – Wikipedia”

Then who cares? The name of the procedure is irrelevant except to have connotations. Perhaps the Wikipedia page discusses the connotations of the terms, and I think the judge should be allowed to cite this discussion.

Jon says:


Citing wikipedia is roughly as useful as citing Brittanica. On the whole, the information is probably just about as accurate. The main difference is that Wikipedia is editable all the time, while Brittanica can’t change after it’s published.

Still, just because something makes it to print doesn’t automatically make it more accurate than the Internet.

Wikipedia even gives a clear history of who authored what.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

HTe stable versions issue is neatly circumvented, assuming you copy/paste the BibTeX source provided, which inludes the version ID, and requires no formatting by the author. While WP is obviously innapropriate for a key poit, it is clearly fine for a definition or expalnation of a minor term.

I agree with Physics Guy about the usefullness of better WP pages as neat collections of usefull links.

Me (how original) says:

law students

I have had law students include wikipedia references in their assignments and have consistently commented on their papers – “Is this the most reliable and ONLY source for this information?” and I think thats the basis on which it should be relied on in a formal setting. I have used it in my own research but only when I could not locate any other accessible source. Where a persons liberty or even money is at stake (and in my case when people are training to provide services that relate to these factors) there needs to be a greater degree certainty than what wikipedia can offer. Dont get me wrong – I love it and think it is an absolutely amazing example of open internet/software architecture and think it has enourmous social value…

frankthetank says:

i agree that using WP as a single source of information isn’t all that great. It is a nice way to get the information you want. sometimes, it’s a good way of understanding the information you need.

I think the real problem with WP is the “turnover” rate. the rate at which articles can be revamped. a couple hundred years ago, we thought there was “anti-oxygen” (read up on the discovery of oxygen). we though the unvierse was constructed of shells where the starts/planets moved in. we believed the earth was stationary and everything moved around it. we believed there were only a few planets. we knew nothing of bacteria and medicine. however, with time new discoveries were made and the research and scholary works needed to be revised. same here, except that any john q internet-user can update the article at any given time. at least with the tech. journals there are suubmission policies and such.

but as i mentioned…it’s nice that the courts are stepping into the digital age

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