crash course

Judges crib notes from Wikipedia before making legal decisions, study finds

Hey, of course they do: it's accessible and usually right. But perhaps we should have a body of knowledge that's just as accessible but more authoritative.

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The Irish Times published a story about Wikipedia influencing legal judgments, spurring a handful of news stories about the free online encyclopedia’s influence over the courts and the vague sentiment that the justice system is devolving into some half-assed homework assignment copied from Wikipedia.

In reality, the study, led by MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researcher Neil Thompson, hasn’t even been published yet (though a preprint is available). Its methodology is pretty interesting, and the authors say it’s “the first randomized field experiment undertaken in this area.”

Here’s what happened — The team had law students write Wikipedia articles on Irish Supreme Court Decisions. Then, a random half of the 150 articles were published to Wikipedia. The researchers found that the studies that were included on Wikipedia were cited 20 percent more frequently than those without Wikipedia articles.

The researchers chose to use the Irish court system because its similar in structure to the U.S. and U.K. systems, with hierarchies in which higher courts’ decisions affect lower courts — but the Irish court decisions have attracted less online coverage than those of larger countries. And assigning Wikipedia editing to students isn’t unusual — classrooms all over the world teach students to contribute to Wikipedia (a program called Wikimedia Education equips instructors to teach students to add to the free encyclopedia).

Don’t judge the judges — The problem isn’t that judges are making use of a massive, free-floating body of all human knowledge; it’s unreasonable to expect every judge to retain complete mastery over a huge body of case law that’s only getting bigger. The problem, instead, is that there isn’t a better resource for judges. For all its convenience and user-generated beauty, Wikipedia’s content can be biased and incomplete; though its team of volunteers do their best to guard the site against vandalism, it’s still vulnerable to manipulation by bad faith actors. The study concludes by stating that “...judges need an easily accessible source of knowledge that is also authoritative.”

Wikipedia is the de facto arbiter of importance, and its team of volunteer editors put considerable time and energy into deciding what is notable enough to earn coverage on the online encyclopedia. You can’t write about your garage band, or doomsday predictions, or your mom’s unremarkable life story. If you don’t believe me, you can try; see how quickly your non-notable backwash gets taken down. But, like the study authors write, Wikipedia’s “fundamental feature of collective self-creation can also make it unreliable: specialized or obscure topics often reflect the perspective of one or two contributors.”