When Is It Appropriate to Cite to Wikipedia?
posted by Daniel Solove
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anybody can edit, is frequently getting cited by courts and academics. The New York Times reports:
A simple search of published court decisions shows that Wikipedia is frequently cited by judges around the country, involving serious issues and the bizarre — such as a 2005 tax case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals concerning the definition of “beverage” that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, just this week, a case in Federal District Court in Florida that involved the term “booty music” as played during a wet T-shirt contest.
More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)
“Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” said Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. “Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate.” But, he added: “It wouldn’t be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn’t look it up in Wikipedia.”
Paul Caron writes:
I asked my crack research assistant, Drew Marksity, to determine how many times law professors have cited Wikipedia in law review articles. Using Westlaw’s JLR database, Drew found that 545 articles cite Wikipedia. (An additional 125 articles mention Wikipedia but do not cite it as authority.)
Brian Leiter writes:
[Caron] discreetly, does not list the names of the authors of these articles, all of whom should presumably be blacklisted from scholarly careers (unless, of course, the citation was in the context of, “Wikipedia reflects the popular prejudice that…” or “Wikipedia records this error as though it were fact, proving yet again the unreliability of the Internet…” or “In this instance, actual scholarly sources confirm what Wikipedia reports…”).
Inside Higher Ed reports that some schools are barring students from citing to Wikipedia:
While plenty of professors have complained about the lack of accuracy or completeness of entries, and some have discouraged or tried to bar students from using it, the history department at Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work. All faculty members will be telling students about the policy and explaining why material on Wikipedia — while convenient — may not be trustworthy.
When is it appropriate to cite to Wikipedia?
I am generally against categorical bans, as the issue really depends upon the context. I did a search of some of the Westlaw citations, and below the fold I’ll list a few.
1. From 59 Stan. L. Rev. 257, in a footnote: “For an overview of the use of modification or “mod” software in computer gaming, see generally Mod (Computer Gaming), WIKIPEDIA, http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mod_%28computer_gaming%29.”
2. From 116 Yale L.J. 226, in a footnote: “Between 1965 and 1974, the government of Sweden, a nation of roughly 4 million households, supervised the construction of 1 million housing units (the “Million Programme”), a majority of which were subsidized apartments. See Christopher Caldwell, Islam on the Outskirts of the Welfare State, N.Y. Times Mag., Feb. 5, 2006, at 55, 56; Wikipedia, Million Programme, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Programme (last visited Sept. 1, 2006).”
3. From 41 Ga. L. Rev. 1, in a footnote: “Spyware is malicious software that takes control of a user’s computer for the benefit of a third party and can be used to surreptitiously monitor the user’s online activity. Wikipedia, Spyware, http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spyware (last visited Aug. 25, 2006).”
4. From 10 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 673, in a footnote: “For example, after premature and unverifiable claims of cold fusion by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were discredited, both Pons and Fleischmann were driven from their academic positions. See, e.g., Wikipedia, Stanley Pons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Pons (last visited Apr. 11, 2006) (noting that both Pons and Fleischmann moved to France and accepted jobs for the Toyota Corporation after their cold fusion work was discredited).”
5. From 4 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 223, in the text: “Ridgway, the most prolific serial killer in American history, pleaded guilty to forty-eight charges of aggravated first degree murder. King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng then congratulated himself: ‘This agreement was the avenue to the truth. And in the end, the search for the truth is still why we have a criminal justice system.’ [FN]” From the footnote: “See Wikipedia entry on Gary Ridgway, at http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Ridgway (last visited Mar. 23, 2006).”
6. From 37 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 753, in a footnote: “Ebert & Roeper gives a “Thumbs Up” (favorable review) or a “Thumbs Down” (unfavorable review). Wikipedia: Ebert & Roeper, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebert_&_ Roeper (last visited Feb. 6, 2006).”
7. From 79 S. Cal. L. Rev. 945, defining the term “netizen”: “See Wikipedia, Netizen, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netizen (last visited May 19, 2006). A Netizen (a portmanteau of Internet and citizen), also known as a cybercitizen, is a person actively involved in online communities for the purpose of giving and receiving viewpoints, furnishing information, fostering the Internet as an intellectual and a social resource, and making choices for self-assembled communities. See id.”
8. From 115 Yale L.J. 1699, in the text: “So perhaps he won’t take offense if I call him a bricoleur, defined by Wikipedia as “a person who creates things from scratch, is creative and resourceful: a person who collects information and things and then puts them together in a way that they were not originally designed to do. [FN]” From the footnote: “Bricolage, in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bricolage (last visited Dec. 7, 2005).”
The examples above include several by well-known law professors and a judge. I’m curious which citations readers find appropriate or inappropriate and why.
UPDATE: Mary Dudziak (law, USC) weighs in over at Legal History Blog about Wikipedia’s accuracy in history articles.