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Wikipedia and Student Law Review Articles:

Here are a few pagraphs that I plan to add to my Academic Legal Writing book on this subject; comments are welcome.

Over two hundred student articles cite the online Wikipedia encyclopedia. Unlike with most encyclopedias, anyone is allowed to create Wikipedia entries, and generally to update existing entries. An unorthodox approach for an encycloped, but the theory is that (1) those people who want to spend time writing entries tend to be knowledgeable, and (2) even when they err, the errors end up getting corrected by others.

Surprisingly, the theory works, most of the time. Wikipedia entries tend to be relatively accurate, probably no worse and possibly better than the typical newspaper article. (This is especially so given that many newspaper articles are written by generalist reporters who are relying on hastily assembled materials from others.)

Nonetheless, while Wikipedia may sometimes be a good place to look, I advise you not to stop looking there. Instead, find the original sources that the Wikipedia entry's author relied on — they'll often be cited in the entry — and read, quote, and cite them.

First, that's the standard procedure you should use for intermediate sources (including, as I said before [earlier in the book chapter], newspaper articles). Second, whether or not Wikipedia is more reliable than the typical newspaper article, many readers will assume that it's less reliable; citing to it may thus decrease your credibility.

UPDATE: I at first noted that "I don't feel the need to mention that Wikipedia's contents may change over time, since I endorse citing to original-source Web pages, while recommending that the author print, save, and possibly even post and link to a copy of the page as of the time the article is written." D'oh! Forgot all about Wikipedia's change tracking system, which will let readers see the page as of any particular date (usin the oldid= feature). Thanks to Dan Lewis and RichardP for pointing this out.

RichardP:
With regards to Wikipedia, it is always possible to link to the exact page revision that you reviewed. For example, while this will always link to the most up-to-date revision of the Volokh Conspiracy article, this is a link to the revision available at time I wrote this note (available from the Permanent Link in the box in lower left margin). The content at the first link may change over time as the article is edited, but the second will not.
6.4.2007 9:27pm
ATRGeek:
I largely agree, but I think Wikipedia is a good source for concise and accessible overviews on a variety of topics. For that reason, I could see sometimes citing the relevant Wikipedia article along with the primary sources. What you wrote is not necessarily inconsistent with this thought, but it might be more clear (unless you intended otherwise).
6.4.2007 9:29pm
adams (mail):
Wikipedia's not just more accurate than the average newspaper article, it's also almost as accurate as other commercial encylopedias, such as Britannica. Nature reported this.
6.4.2007 9:56pm
FantasiaWHT:
Wikipedia is almost always the first place I start looking when I know next-to-nothing about a topic. I'm not sure I would ever actually cite to it formally though, since most everything on it is available at a more legitimate source. In everyday conversation (online or in person) I might use it to back up a point I make.
6.4.2007 9:57pm
Can't find a good name:
I like Wikipedia, I have registered an account on Wikipedia, and I have over 8,000 edits over 2 years on Wikipedia.

That said, if Wikipedia had existed when I was a student editor on a law journal, I would have marked almost every citation to Wikipedia on a submitted article with "find better source." Wikipedia is a tertiary source, and not a particularly reliable one. Law reviews should try to do better than than.
6.4.2007 10:02pm
Can't find a good name:
"... better than that."
6.4.2007 10:02pm
Annonymous Coward (mail):
You are too kind to Wikipedia.

Granted Wikipedia is a very useful source especially for pop culture references. Any subject where precision matters is likely to have at least some controversy attached. Where controversy attaches Wikipedia becomes a matter of egoboo rather than scholarship. See e.g. the thread at Making Light:
Grep that spool for an extended discussion including attacks, defenses and laments.

Were I writing about sourcing or using Wikipedia I would suggest that modified hearsay rules apply. I would not use Wikipedia for the truth of the matter asserted unless say an admission against interest - something that runs counter to the general tone of the article frex character defects of Paul Robeson or character strengths of Clarence Thomas or some similar other reason.

Consider that Dr. Pournelle, who is after all a double doctorate from a reputable university has been contradicted and edited out when writing about himself and his own university thesis and thoughts. Again see Dr. Pournelle's statements about Wikipedia on his own site.

There may be no better source than Wikipedia for current material such as the relationship between Joss Wheedon and brown coats but citing Wikipedia is claiming a spurious authority.
6.4.2007 10:10pm
Meh (mail):
For whatever it's worth, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office permits its examining attorneys to cite Wikipedia in refusing registration to trademark applicants, despite the fact that the International Trademark Association has objected.
6.4.2007 10:54pm
Meh (mail):
Oops, here's the link.
6.4.2007 10:58pm
Mary Dudziak (www):
Eugene,

Your advice to use Wikipedia as a research tool and then to go to the sources cited is great, but you might want to clarify the citation issue, esp. in light of the views you express in your previous Wikipedia post. What gets lost in the law blog discussion about citing to Wikipedia is that all citations to encyclopedias are discouraged. When Middlebury College recently banned history students from citing Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder supported it.

This is from the NY Times: Wales "said of the Middlebury policy, 'I don't consider it as a negative thing at all.'
He continued: 'Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested — students shouldn't be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn't be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either.'"

This was on the Legal History Blog, where there are a number of related posts, including a link to a study on Wikipedia accuracy in history. Unfortunately I can't get the link function to work for this comment, or I would provide links. Try Google if interested.

Middlebury College &Wales were discussing undergrad papers. Surely law student (and law prof) publications should be held to the same standard.
6.4.2007 11:19pm
Meh (mail):
And this opinion from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Campbell v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, No. 02-554, reissued 2/14/06, was rather critical of reliance on Wikipedia.
6.4.2007 11:26pm
Mary Dudziak (www):
Here are the links (needed to allow pop-ups):

post w/ Wales quote.

post with study of Wikipedia accuracy in history.

my favorite (Steven Colbert).
6.4.2007 11:29pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mary Dudziak: The entire section is "Read, Quote, and Cite the Original Source" -- I discourage reliance on any intermediate sources, including law review articles. But when it comes to tangential, uncontroversial, and uncomplicated facts (for instance, that the Duchy of Courland had a colony in the Americas), it seems to me that a traditional encyclopedia would be an adequate source, if the author wants to save the time checking a history of Courland.
6.5.2007 12:06am
Mary Dudziak (www):
Well, what is tangential and uncontroversial to one person, might not be so to, say, historians of Courland. One historian refers to encyclopedias as "the Reader's Digest of deep knowledge." Perhaps we differ about whether we should ever want (or whether students should want) Reader's Digest-level cites in our footnotes. I'd check out the history of Courland. And with Google books, there are fewer excuses for avoiding the actual sources.
6.5.2007 1:01am
Recent Executive Articles Editor:
FWIW, my law review considers Wikipedia inherently unreliable, and in any article we publish -- whether student-written or professor-written -- we make sure that the article does not cite to Wikipedia for anything other than a discussion of Wikipedia itself. Moreover, our submissions process penalizes authors who cite to Wikipedia for anything other than tangential, widely known, and utterly uncontroversial assertions of fact (e.g., "The Earth is roughly spherical."). Even your Duchy of Courland cite might raise eyebrows, unless it was part of a side discussion in a chatty footnote that digressed from an already tangential point.

Whether this special distaste for Wikipedia is fair or not, I suspect that at least a few other journals have similarly harsh policies with respect to Wikipedia. It would probably serve your readers' interests to more strongly warn them away from citing to Wikipedia.
6.5.2007 1:11am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mary: I appreciate your point, but my sense is that sometimes one can reasonably trade off some extra reliability for a savings of time -- and that even a historian of Courland will concede that some passing references to Courland are tangential to the referring article's main claim. Here's what I say about the matter, in a subsection titled "Compromise Wisely":

These suggestions -- track down the original source, don't rely on newspaper accounts, e-mail people who are quoted to make sure that the quotes are accurate, check the studies that you cite -- are time-consuming, and you might not have much time: Your seminar paper or law review article is due at the end of the semester, you have to study for other classes, and you have to actually write the article.

It's best if you follow all the suggestions given above, because they aren't as time-consuming as they may appear, and they help avoid embarrassing and grade-reducing errors. But if you do need to cut corners, here are a few items to consider in deciding when to do so:

1. Importance. If an assertion is one of the significant steps in your chain of reasoning, check it particularly well.

2. Controversy. If an assertion seems especially controversial or counterintuitive, make extra sure that you have it right. First, such assertions are more likely to be wrong or exaggerated than the conventional wisdom tends to be. Second, your readers (including the person who is grading you) are more likely to pay close attention to these assertions.

3. Personal accusation. If you're claiming that some person or small group of people did something bad or foolish, make sure that you have solid proof. This is partly a matter of fairness to the targets, and partly of self-protection -- readers are especially likely to scrutinize such accusations closely.

4. Ease of finding the original source. If the original source is easy to find -- for instance, if it's a case or a statute -- there's no good excuse for relying on a summary in an intermediate source.

5. Bias. Information in an opinion piece, in a law review article written by an advocate for a particular position, or in a site run by an advocacy group is more likely to be unreliable or incomplete than information in a more objective news story or treatise. And careful readers will be especially likely to notice the bias of such sources (especially when the sources are advocacy groups), and lose confidence in your own article as a result. So even if you have to save time by trusting someone, avoid cutting corners with sources like these: Track down the original study, and read, quote, and cite it, not the advocacy group's summary of the study.
6.5.2007 3:23am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Recent Editor: Good point, thanks!
6.5.2007 3:24am
BigBen (mail):
My thought on wikipedia is that it shouldn't be cited, however, not because it's intrinsically flawed, but because it's a generalist encyclopedia.

The circumstances where I'd think citing an encyclopedia in an upper level college paper or a law review article would be appropriate are quite rare.

Of course it is true that many wiki articles are considerably larger than a comparable Britannica, or equivalent article. This is probably primarily for technical reasons, when you're responsible for producing all the content, there's cost associated with it.

When someone decides to write a 20,000 word article on "Law and Order" because they really like the show, the marginal cost to the owners of wikipedia is marginal.

But this doesn't change the nature of the encyclopedia. The only situation where I'd feel citing it in a law review article is appropriate is in some context where I was trying to define a basic concept. "What is X? well, Wikipedia defines X as Y, but others have different opinions"
6.5.2007 12:29pm
a knight (mail) (www):
I am one who believes that humanity is best served when information can freely move. Because of this, I also believe that open-source databases are inherently a positive force, and generally support the Wikipedia concept. Wikipedia has problems. The Wikipedia users have to their credit attempted to address many of these problems, but some remain. Common persistent problems remain whenever the topic drifts into contemporary politics or hot button social issues (which I would argue is an extension of the first case).

My personal experience has led me to believe that Wikipedia is not inherently biased left or right within the flawed modeling system of a two dimensional political reality. What I have discovered is that Wikipedia editors, or cliques of editors, latch onto certain articles, and guard them from what they believe to be errancy. In political related articles, bias can be found on both the left and the right. Even appeals to the Wikipedia Commons are liable to fail, because Wikipedia editors tend to be obsessed with their own personal fiefdom of edits, and will not take the time needed to properly adjudicate bias claims of articles in subjects far adrift from their personal favorites.

The Wikipedia versioning system can be used for ferreting out opposing views, but few researchers understand its use, and even fewer are willing to dig that deeply. Recently, I have noticed a few claims that even the Wikipedia versioning system has become tainted; that it is now subject to editing from privileged user accounts. This is not something I have personally verified though, and although the claims are troubling, do not at this time claim it to be fact.

A few occasions I have felt that an obvious bias in an article warranted the time it took for me to question its veracity. In all of these instances, I have left my comments on the article's talk page, because I believe that my willingness to make the effort to dissent is itself clear evidence of my bias, and therefore makes me unsuitable as an editor for the topic. Unfortunately, many regular Wikipedia editors do not have my sense of propriety, and have shown themselves willing to use the system to their advantage by deleting my comments without properly refuting my charges of bias, and stating the rationale on the reason for their edit (which shows up on the public log in the commons) disingenuously. Once, the claim was made that an article I cited from the London times was suspect, because it was 'foreigner press', but this editor used as a primary source for his authorship of the subject an article from The Telegraph. Anyone care to debate about the comparative merits between The Times and The Telegraph as authoritarian citations of source?

In Wikipedia's defense, I believe that approximately half of my bias claims have had their substance properly accounted for. This does not mean that my claims of error were fully incorporated into the article. As I stated earlier, the fact that I commented on the article makes me a biased observer and improper judge. Also, my rhetorical style often tends toward waving a sharp stick decorated with hyperbole.

For those willing to take the time, I end with quotes and a pointer to a subthread within a past Slashdot article, dated April 19, 2005; "The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia, Part II".

"Who decides the truth?"

There is a saying, the victors often write history. With most encyclopedia's there is an editorial board that decides what gets in. It is often culture specific. The encyclopedia you will find at the State U will be very different than the encyclopedias you find at Universities in Iran. With this project, it says people write articles, and edit other peoples work. Does that mean I can edit your article? It would seem to be a breeding ground of fighting, flaming, and trolling.

For example, if someone wanted to write about the war in Iraq, and the first article was submitted by Osama Bin Laden, I am sure others would come be at the polar opposite.

There is a saying, the victors often write history.

With the wiki model, whoever has the most time to spend editing the work of others writes history.

There is a saying, the victors often write history.

With the wiki model, whoever has the most time to spend editing the work of others writes history.

So basically, it's the losers that write history these days.


For transparency's sake, yes I have a Slashdot membership, and no, I did not comment within this thread.
6.5.2007 4:08pm
Miss Binky (mail) (www):
I came in here to see the comments on the Scooter Libby case and got sidetracked by this thread on Wikipedia when to my dismay, I discovered that nobody had discussed the outcome of the trial as of yet.

I have to say that I love Wikipedia for the fact that it is quick access to just about anything under the sun. It's funny, when you read something in print, the average mind tends to believe it as fact if they have nothing to tell them differently...which accounts for a lot of ignorance in the world.

I have recently had occasion to come across a Wiki article on a subject which I happen to have a great deal of knowledge about.

As I was working on my website a few days ago, I was looking for a link to include a brief explanation of the subject of New Orleans Voodoo. This article was confusing at best and indeed spurious with regards to some of it's claims and while it didn't present a derrogatory view of the controversial and much maligned subject, it continued to propagte many sterotypes which have historically been associated with it.

Feeling a sense of duty to present accuracy and some historical data associated with this subject, I went about the task of re-writing the article. However, being an artist gifted with an extremely short attention-span, I did not cite my sources...I plan to, but it became an arduous task that had brought me off on a tangent that day and taken me away from what I was currently engrossed in. ...kinda like I'm doing again here.

So I guess an opinion could be that it doesn't ostensibly do much to lend credibility to my website by linking a Wiki article authored by myself, to my site. It could be argued that I merely appear to be attempting to lend an air of credibility to my site with an article from another source, which is in truth, the same source...me. However, I enjoy irony and somewhere in there lies some irony. I couldn't find the information I was looking for in a consice, easy to read format, so I ended up writing it myself.

The other side of this argument is, someone has gone in their to edit and the only change that was made was to remove a naughty word. I take that as a compliment. However, I do still intend to get in there and cite some sources and include links...but alas, I am lazy...so if anyone is anal retentive enough to do it for me... :)

If anyone is interested in taking a tangential stroll into a subject far removed from the law, here is the article:

As I grabbed this link, I went back and re-read the article, to see if anyone had changed anything in it. It seems that the article was intact, with the exception of one single word. An expletive...darn it! I just put it in there to see if anyone was paying attention really, and I was amused that it was able to sustain a life, however brief of at least a few days...alas, someone ferretted it out!

Unfortunately, this word was what separated the first paragraph - the original author's work - from my work. By removal of that one single objection, expressed in an off-color colloquialism, it gave the work the appearance of one author, contradicting themself from one paragraph to the next. ...Now I guess this means I'm going to have to go back in there and clarify my perspective, so that I don't look capricious &self-contradictory. ...some other time!

So I do agree that Wikipedia is but a beginning source to start off with but to be truly unbiased and knowledgeable about a given subject, I agree with Eugene that one must look to the original sources and research the subject entirely. I like to go a step further and read opposing viewpoints as well because I feel that is the best way to be fully armed with knowledge. To be aware of and not intimidated by an opposing view is the only way to find the middle ground wherein the truth usually lies.

As a completely obscure yet, thought-provoking example of this, I would point to the controversial subject of The Jehovah Witnesses involvement with Hitler as evinced by The Declaration of Facts, Berlin, Germany, 1933. Now that's a subject where one can find many historical facts as well as completely polar-opposite viewpoints.

By the way, I am not a lawyer, law student or anything of the kind. I am an artist. I come in here to read your posts because this is a source of knowledge for me: points and counter-points, differing views and opinions from people who share a passion for the law is a great source of knowledge for me. Thanks! ...now I have to get back to work and stop wasting time.

I know this is off-topic, but I would really appreciate reading some of your views on the outcome of the Libby trial: Not that I disagree with his conviction, however, his attorney did argue that Special prosecutor Fitzgerald never successfully proved the leak was a crime. "No one was ever charged. Nobody ever pleaded guilty." "The government did not establish the existence of an offense." Please discuss :)


Miss Binky
6.5.2007 6:09pm
Bill Woods (mail):
By coincidence, Geoff Nunberg just commented on Wikipedia on NPR's "Fresh Air":

But maybe [NYT columnist Paul] Krugman was just owning up to what most journalists and scholars regard as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all the time. By "rely on," I don't mean just for doing "preliminary research," which is how academics always say they use Wikipedia, in the same tone that they adopt when they cop to glancing at People in the dentist's waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of information.

Or at least I do. In fact I've been keeping a log of the questions I've gone to Wikipedia with in the last few months. ...

I almost never bother to verify the answers. Usually I don't much care -- ...
6.5.2007 6:14pm
Matthew J. Brown (mail):
In reply to 'a knight', above:

The only change that has been made to Wikipedia's versioning system is that a very small number of users have been given the ability to erase revisions from the visible record. This is used to remove libel, the publishing of contact details for people who wish to remain private, and other such critical cases.

This is used relatively infrequently (probably about ten cases a week, or so). The data is not actually wholly removed, but is copied to a database table only visible to the database admins; they could in turn remove it if mandated by the law or the server owners (Wikimedia foundation) but I have not heard of this happening.

A revision is never edited once made. It may be removed, but never changed.

(I'm a member of the English Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee and an oversight-enabled (revision deletion) user)
6.5.2007 9:56pm
BlackX (mail):
Harvard Business School relatively recently sent out an email warning (with implicit chastisement(?)) the research associates/assistants from using Wikipedia as a source, particularly for the secondary/tertiary aspects.
6.6.2007 8:50am
a knight (mail) (www):
Mr. Brown, I appreciate the unexpected response to my concerns regarding Wikipedia's versioning system. It confirms a conceived possibility, and allays personal unease.

If you are interested in knowing the details of my most recent foray onto a stub's talk page with a bias claim, which I felt was improperly handled by removing my post, citing "vandalism" as the cause, and not one of my four offered citations properly refuted, the email address listed reaches a live box of mine, and I will respond posting from my home DSL IP, which is the same one I used for the talk-page edit. Understand though, I am not a Wikipedia member, nor am I presently interested in becoming one. At the same time, I am not a vandal (but remember my sharp pointy stick allegory above), nor an enemy of Wikipedeia. In the first instance, it would be against my ethics, and in the latter; I do not yet feel that Wikipedia is a primary disinformation entry vector into the public datastreams. No promises about my feelings in the future though.

Please use your listed email add on this site for contact, if you desire further data.

cheers, and good luck, I do not envy your position at Wikipedia.
6.7.2007 8:17am