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How Wikipedia Can Influence Judges’ Legal Writing
Judges are just like the rest of us. They turn to Google and Wikipedia.
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A new study finding that Irish High Court judges were influenced by the existence and specific language of Wikipedia pages seems to have put the Irish judiciary on the defensive. Responding to the paper, a High Court judicial source told the Irish Times that the idea that a Wikipedia article would be relied upon by a judge to support their reasoning for a decision “is clearly wrong.” As one judicial source put it, “Judgments are written based on the legal authorities and submissions put before the court, not on a Google search or Wikipedia.”
Then again, it’s hard to dispute the outcome of the peer-reviewed study, which was published online July 27 as a preprint and is forthcoming in the Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence.
The research team arranged for 154 new Wikipedia articles to be created for Irish Supreme Court cases. After creating the new Wikipedia entries, they found that High Court judicial decisions cited those cases 20 percent more often than those without Wikipedia articles. (Perhaps confusingly, the High Court is the lowest level of “superior” court in Ireland, comparable to a federal district court in the United States.) They also found that the language judges used in their written opinions began to echo the language from the new Wikipedia pages.
At first blush, it might seem that Irish judges need a refresher of what so many of us learned back in high school: that Wikipedia is not itself a primary source for serious research, and that you’ll find yourself in trouble if you copy/paste it to your “paper.” But in fact, there’s a lot more going on here. When people go to court in democratic countries, they expect that the judge’s decision will be governed by the “rule of law,” by authoritative texts such as a criminal statute, a prior judicial decision, or the national constitution. Nobody expects to be governed by the “rule of Wikipedia.” Then again, in an era when Wikipedia is widely considered the gold standard for online information resources, it’s worth asking: Is there any meaningful distinction?
P.S. A publishing update: I am working diligently on the rewrites for my novel, Infodemic. Excited to share more updates on that process soon.