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.


  1. It's interesting. For all the justified concern about wikipedia entries finding their way into formal legal opinions, I find it a very useful tool for refreshers on Supreme Court cases (I know that's only part of the "law", of course).

    I am NOT a law student or grad, but when I look to wikipedia, the summaries seem to jive well with what I've read about various cases.

    Have any of you ever found gaping errors in SCOTUS Wikipedia entries?

  2. I have seen over-simplifications and omissions but I haven't run across gross errors. To be sure, I don't use Wikipedia for S Ct issues much.

  3. For my sins, I direct the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, where WEX is housed.

    You're quite right that Wex is suffering from a lack of contributors. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the LII, which maintains a million-page web site with a staff of five, lacks the resources either to do aggressive volunteer recruiting, or to do the work of creating all the entries ourselves. So far as that goes, we've been lax in supervising the volunteers that we do have. The second reason is simply that the legal professoriate -- and other qualified individuals, such as practitioners and law librarians -- have not volunteered. The level of altruism is remarkably low.

    You would label that a failure -- and we would too, if our aim had really been to create an authoritative book of all legal knowledge in a relatively short time. Our internal view was and is that the wiki format leaves open the possibility of outside contribution -- which we certainly encourage -- while better housing and merging a number of resources that we were providing in other forms. I suppose these statements must seem a self-serving retreat. But the fact is that we were always rather cynical about the likelihood of altruism in the legal academy, and at the same time eager to attract what effort we could to help us.

    Readers don't seem to feel as dispirited as you and I. The WEX overviews and definitions attract about 3 million page views per month. This is paltry compared with Wikipedia as a whole, I'm sure, but substantial nevertheless. WEX material is also frequently used by the press and other information brokers. So we are not unhappy with its impact, nor are our readers unhappy with what they find.

    On larger issues, I would agree with anyone who says that neither WEX nor any other wikified encyclopedia will ever fully overwhelm more targeted compilations from authors with greater expertise. For us, at least, that isn't the point. We see an opportunity to increase the intellectual accessibility of law to a larger population -- many of whom, by the way, have needs for that information that are considerably more sophisticated than law people typically ascribe to the general public. Developing a resource that will do that in a focussed and tightly integrated way is turning out to be slower and more lonely work than we (or you) would like. I can't say I'm surprised by that.

    And since we're not done yet, I'd invite you to submit a definition or two.

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