Saturday, February 03, 2007

Citing Wikipedia

A NY Times story last week noted that judicial opinions increasingly cite Wikipedia as a source of facts, although mostly for background or tangential information. A few courts, however, have cited Wikipedia as a factual source on more central questions. The article raises three principal objections to such citations. None, it seems to me, is persuasive.

First, the article notes that citations of Wikipedia are ephemeral because entries change. Someone looking for a source a year or more after the opinion cited it might find something substantially different. For example, the link above to the NY Times story will go dead after the Times removes it from its complimentary site, per its policy of charging for older articles.

Well, so what? As Larry Lessig points out in the Times story, it's easy to create permanent caches of any webpage at any given time for future reference by using Webcite. (Check it out. It's very cool.) Moreover, while Lessig's point makes sense for most web pages, it's not even necessary for Wikipedia, which includes a "history" feature for each entry, so one can look up an earlier version if needed.

The second objection is the obvious one: Wikipedia is the product of sometimes anonymous volunteers who may not have any special expertise. Therefore it's just not reliable. This would be a good objection if it were true, but it isn't. A 2005 study in Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, although Britannica claims that the study was flawed (as detailed here.) Even if Wikipedia isn't quite as accurate as Britannica, over time it will become more so, as the market for Britannica disappears. (Can you imagine getting a young student a set of encyclopedias in the way that kids in my generation were given them as gifts?) Moreover, even right now there are undoubtedly hundreds of sources that are less accurate than Wikipedia that courts routinely cite. Take, for example, judicial precedents from many years ago that were based on information that is now hopelessly out of date.

A third objection is that once Wikipedia becomes a source for judicial decisions, litigants and lawyers will try to game the system by writing their own entries. This simply can't work given the open-source nature of Wikipedia. For example, a few days ago, in an effort to demonstrate the truthiness of knowledge, Stephen Colbert urged his viewers to edit Wikipedia to state that the population of elephants has tripled in the last ten years. (In fact, elephants are highly endangered.) This worked for a few seconds, whereupon the page reverted to the accurate version, and re-reverted each time a Colbertista made the change again. (You can read the changes in the History tab.)

The real objection to citations of Wikipedia thus appears to be a kind of doctrinaire epistemology in which knowledge only counts as such if certified by certified experts. But if the wisdom of a sufficiently large crowd turns out to be better, on average, than the wisdom of experts, then there is no good reason to insist on the latter.


Neil H. Buchanan said...

How do we know that Wikipedia is as accurate as expert knowledge unless we have a reliable source of expert knowledge? And if we have such a source, shouldn't courts cite it rather than having faith that Wikipedia will probably, usually get it right ... eventually ... with occasionally changes back and forth?

Caleb said...

Of course, if Wikipedia IS correct as often as any other encyclopedia, we might have fuel to prefer Aristotle's argument for the wisdom of the multitude over Plato's philosopher king.

Derek said...

There are a number of good solutions to the vandalism problem. My favorite is here:

Michael C. Dorf said...

In answer to Neil's question, the Nature study took 40 randomly selected subjects, then gave experts in the field the Wikipedia article on the subject and the Britannica article on the subject, without identifying the source, and asked them to spot errors. The results were comparable. So why not just cite Britannica? Because it will go out of business soon enough. And why not cite the primary experts? Well, that's a lot of work, and also, if you're not an expert, you may have a hard time identifying one. For example, you might think that John Hodgman is an expert on, well, just about anything.

Amos Blackman said...

While I am a big fan of the democratization of knowledge (both generally and Wikipedia specifically), I nonetheless empathize with the discomfort many feel at relying on it. For example, I don't think judges would have cited Wikipedia in 2001, or if they had, I question whether Professor Dorf would have been endorsed it. Any information provider must undergo a maturation period, during which users of the information shift from being majority skeptical to majority trusting. I think we're uncomfortable with Internet sources because few have survived this maturation process, and for most of us, prior to the Internet, we weren't around to witness the maturation of the more traditional sources we rely on.

To test my theory, consider the following passage:

"Defendant's exhibit indicates that out of thirty-two songs found which contain the phrase 'holla back,' nine songs repeat 'holla back' in the same rhythmic pattern used in 'Holla Back' and 'Young N,' four songs predate the release of plaintiff's song, and five songs were released in the same year as plaintiff's song. The appearance of the phrase 'holla back' in the Urban Dictionary further supports defendant's contention that the phrase is common and therefore unprotectable.[FN5]

"FN5. As cited in the defendant's exhibit 6, the Urban Dictionary is an online dictionary which allows users to create and submit definitions of slang words and phrases for publication 'Holla back' is defined as a 'term [that] can be used as a goodbye greeting or when ending a conversation or at the end of trying to prove a point.' See"

Boone v. Jackson, No. 03 Civ. 8661, 2005 WL 1560511, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. July 1, 2005) (emphasis added).

Do you really believe that citing Urban Dictionary supports the Defendant's claim?

egarber said...

I think the problem is that there's no barometer to test the credibility behind any particular wikipedia entry. If a mainstream press outfit or university research center reports something, there is a natural vetting process -- we know who wrote it, and those folks bear the burden of answering doubts about their work. That whole dynamic tends to regulate the quality of information.

As beautiful as populist web forums are, there simply is very little barrier to entry. This creates giant cracks (imo). On wiki, how does a Court know it's citing valid informationvs. a contaminated version of it?

Anil Kalhan said...

Mike -- does the report this week about Microsoft paying a blogger to "correct" Wikipedia entries in any way change your view? Or is your response to that basically like Colbert's ("Boo hoo, comrade!")?

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to Anil's question, basically yes: The Microsoft effort was detected. I don't disagree that Wikipedia could eventually become inaccurate if the ratio of hackers and vandals to altruistic netizens goes up enough. But if that doesn't happen, I have high hopes for Wikipedia. (Not that i'm about to cite it in my own academic work!)

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