Home > Uncategorized > Wikipedia as a Source?

Wikipedia as a Source?

We’ve all been told to never use Wikipedia as a source. Since the site first started back in 2003, teachers everywhere have warned students of the mortal danger of using the site. After all, how could a site that allows anyone to post on subjects ranging from the Sumatran Orangutan to Steiner chains be accurate? The funny thing is if you’re curious about what a Steiner chain is now, you’re probably using Wikipedia to look it up. There’s a reason for that. Most of us trust Wikipedia, because it is actually reliable.  Just how reliable is it?  Well, according to this Wikipedia article, very reliable.

Many people just assume that allowing thousands of non-experts to create an online community-based encyclopedia is a recipe for disaster.  In fact, Wikipedia has even been likened to a public restroom by former Encyclopædia Britannica editor Robert McHenry, “[H]owever closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler… The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.”  Ouch. As biting as those remarks were, I’m still not ready to quit using Wikipedia and fork over $103 per year for a premium membership to the Encyclopædia Britannica website.  Why not, you might ask?  Since Wikipedia was established, a number of studies have shown that the site is actually an accurate source of information.

In 2005, the journal Nature showed that, compared to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Wikipedia had very few serious errors. An article by the Guardian maintained that most experts who were a part of their study rated Wikipedia between a 5 and 8 with 8 being the highest possible and 0 being the lowest.  According to a review of the site by Library Journal, “While there are still reasons to proceed with caution when using a resource that takes pride in limited professional management, many encouraging signs suggest that (at least for now) Wikipedia may be granted the librarian’s seal of approval.”  There have been many other positive reviews of the site’s accuracy by academia and tech professionals, which suggests that Wikipedia may not be the public restroom of the interwebs after all.

Part of the reason Wikipedia is such an accurate source despite the lack of expertise is that administrators play a major role in cleaning up the site.  As of 2009, there were about 1,600 administrators for the English Wikipedia site.  These administrators monitor the site checking for vandalism, inaccuracies, or poorly written articles. They also have the power to ban users or lock articles to prevent them from being edited any further.  This combination of a free and open online community coupled with a significant number of experts with editorial power has led to Wikipedia becoming a surprisingly reliable and overwhelmingly vast online encyclopedia.  Did I mention it’s free too?

Although the taboo against citing Wikipedia is quickly vanishing with over 400 academic and scientific articles referencing the site in 2008 and 600 in 2009, I’m not suggesting you go cite it in your next law review note. My point is that we should probably start changing the way we think about sources and authority.  Having a centralized expert/author and editor is good, but having an entire community of enthusiastic non-experts is better (and more democratic.) There are tons of books that get published every year that really aren’t great sources (is a book by David Duke really a source at all?) and there are tons of blogs out there that provide quality information. In an age where publishing a book will soon be as easy as publishing online, we should use a critical eye when using any source.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 22, 2011 at 12:11 am

    Although we’ve been told by no less than Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia,” several federal courts have ignored this quip and have cited Wikipedia in their decisions on substantive issues. (http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/wikipedia-founder-discourages-academic-use-of-his-creation/2305; http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/jan/30/wikipedia.news)

    For example, the Seventh Circuit in Rickher v. Home Depot, Inc., 535 F.3d 661 (7th Cir. 2008), cited Wikipedia’s definition of “wear and tear” where the entire case’s holding turned on this definition. Or, consider the district court’s decision in VDP Patent v. Welch Allyn Holdings , 523 F.Supp.2d 364 (S.D.N.Y. 2007), where the defendants attempted to invalidate the plaintiff’s patent based on the plaintiff’s use of the term “cross-section.” The district court arrived to its holding based on a definition of “cross-section” from a Wikipedia entry.

    But as one court has revealed, courts have met Wikipedia with ambivalence. In Platinum Links Entertainment v. Atlantic City Surf Professional Baseball Club (2006 WL 1459986), the district court rejected the plaintiff’s use of a Wikipedia definition of “rap music” in supporting a contention of “racial animus.” Nevertheless, the court went on to state that it had looked up the term “gangsta rap” on Wikipedia and found that the Wikipedia definition did not mention race in any way.

    Credit: lead for the above cases: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/tech_law_prof/2007/03/wikipedia_credi.html

    Wikipedia presents an interesting problem. Unlike the more selective wikis such as Cornell’s legal wiki, Wex, which restricts who can edit the content on Wex, Wikipedia allows virtually anyone to make changes to its pages. As such, it is difficult if not impossible to evaluate just how authoritative a Wikipedia page is at all. Yet, let’s be honest–Wikipedia is so wonderfully convenient and at times, has the veneer of respectability because of its footnotes, large crowd sources (which makes you think that if there were an error, someone would have caught it), and well, it looks right. Furthermore, Wikipedia is free, as you mention in your post! However, Wikipedia’s purported strength–crowd sourcing–is also its downfall because it is impossible to trace back to the individual responsible for the content. Theoretically, I could make up a bunch of websites, edit a Wikipedia page with something that sounds reasonable, and support my fallacious statements with my own websites (carefully masked, of course). Because of this potential, Wikipedia should not be viewed as authoritative–ever, but given how some judges have succumbed to citing Wikipedia, there is a definite slippery slope argument to be made. After all, the hesitation that one judge may have in citing Wikipedia may slowly erode in light of circuit judges citing to Wikipedia. And, there is a clear trend to more and more Wikipedia citations in judicial opinion in circuit courts besides the Seventh. (http://www.jcil.org/journal/articles/500.html). Having never worked for a federal judge, I cannot comment on the extent of its resources, but I worked over the summer with a state judge (in a state with a severe budget crisis, no less) and I had unlimited access to Westlaw, LexisNexis,the Oxford English Dictionary, several trade journals, and more. After all, the state and its courts highly prioritized its research resources as being vital and more important than say, office supplies. As such, I fail to see the allure of Wikipedia as a cost-saving measure or in general for the courts.

    Of course, Wikipedia has something to say on this point too… “Wikipedia: Wikipedia in Judicial Opinions,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.phptitle=Wikipedia:Wikipedia_in_judicial_opinions&oldid=252853352. However, as of this actual posting (I write my posts ahead of time), this page has disappeared. Besides disappearing, it is also constantly evolving with edits appearing on a quasi-regular basis. What you see today may be completely different tomorrow or completely different within the hour. And, this leads to another issue–the lack of permanence. How can a researcher or law practitioner truly rely on Wikipedia when it is clearly unstable in every sense of the word? It is still somewhat baffling that Wikipedia can be considered reliable given these issues. Moreover, this only heightens my discomfort with the growing embrace of Wikipedia as a source for courts and legal practitioners who are dealing with critical issues that have very real consequences. This is not idle amusement. If Wikipedia wants to be considered a serious source, it must find a way to reconcile its desire to be free and open with its desire to be authoritative. There are more reliable free sources out there that do not compromise reliability with free-ness and those are best pursued by the courts and the general public. Thoughts?

  1. February 3, 2011 at 11:42 am
  2. February 3, 2011 at 6:20 pm

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