Thursday, February 08, 2007

Wex v. Wikilaw or Wikipedia v. Google?

Wex, a project of Cornell's Legal Information Institute, aims to do for law what Wikipedia does for knowledge generally. It is a collaboratively-created site that acts as a kind of legal encyclopedia for novices. On the assumption that useful information should come from people who have some expertise, one needs to be certified as an expert in order to contribute to Wex. As a consequence, it is pretty incomplete. For example, type "state action" into the search engine and you get nothing. Type "Joseph Story" and you get nothing on Story and one article on the Commerce Clause, which includes a link to an external site with an excerpt of Story's Commentaries on the Constitution.

The basic problem with Wex, it might appear, is not enough contributors. Or maybe not. A Wex competitor, Wikilaw, permits anyone to create and edit. It also produces nothing relevant for either "state action" or "Joseph Story." That's not surprising. Someone who's writing for a general audience would be much more likely to contribute to Wikipedia than to a specialized wiki. Thus, while there's no "state action" entry on Wikipedia, there is a "state actor" entry which captures the concept, if briefly, and a short but basically accurate entry for Joseph Story.

Neither Wex nor Wikilaw has been in existence long enough to declare either a failure, but their experience thus far suggests that publishers of legal treatises and the like have little to fear from competition from wiki's. Wikipedia itself may eventually pose threat, but not yet. The real competition may one day end up being between Wikipedia and the web itself, as searched via Google or its competitors. Wikipedia provides the advantages of a single consensus entry but also the risk of bad information crowding out good, at least on controversial topics. The web offers the advantage of potential expertise --- you can end up at a site with real depth --- but the corresponding disadvantage of choice among sources. For example, searching "state action" turns up much irrelevant material along with some relevant sites. Searching for Joseph Story turns up a great many sites, including some that have a clear ideological slant, but at the top of the list is the Wikipedia entry. None of this bears precisely on what authorities lawyers or scholars should be able to cite, but insofar as future lawyers and scholars will grow up using these and other web-based research tools, developments like the failure of Wex and Wikilaw (if they do indeed fail) will be worth watching.