Court Holds That Wikipedia Entries Are “Inherently Unreliable”

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Category: Legal Research, Legal Writing
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On the Legal Writing Prof blog, Jim Levy noted today (hat-tipping BNA Internet Law News) that a court expressly rejected an appellant’s attempt to rely on Wikipedia.

In State v. Flores, an unpublished decision by the Texas Court of Appeals for the 14th District dated October 23, 2008, the court refused the appellant’s request to take judicial notice of a Wikipedia entry describing the “John Reid interrogation technique.”  The court reasoned in footnote 3 that Wikipedia entries are inherently unreliable because they can be written and edited anonymously by anyone.  The court relied on a recent article from the Wall Street Journal entitled Wikipedians Leave Cyberspace, Meet in Egypt, noting that the egalitarian nature of Wikipedia is both “its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.”

The Flores decision is also available on Westlaw and Lexis at, respectively, 2008 WL 4683960 (Tex.App.-Hous (14th Dist.)) and 2008 Tex. App. LEXIS 8010.

Which reminded me of another recent Wikipedia-related entry on that blog, a note about Lee Peoples’ article, “The Citation of Wikipedia in American Judicial Opinions.”

I haven’t read Peoples’ article yet, but I should, because this issue of the reliability of Wikipedia and its citation by courts has been bubbling up lately.  It think this Texas court was exactly right: “Wikipedia entries are inherently unreliable because they can be written and edited anonymously by anyone.”  I will admit that I sometimes read a Wikipedia entry if I want background information about a topic.  I do not think, though, that I would cite an entry as proof of anything in court.  What do you think?

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10 Responses to “Court Holds That Wikipedia Entries Are “Inherently Unreliable””

  1. Tom Kamenick Says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand, yes, its editability makes the source theoretically unreliable. On the other hand, I’ve seen studies finding that Wikipedia entries are more accurate than Encyclopedia Brittanica articles.

    However, like Prof. Slavin, I tend to use Wikipedia as a starting point (the references at the bottom of each article are often quite helpful) or as simply an overview about a topic I have no familiarity with.

    I also use it frequently at work when I’m reviewing medical records and come up on a term I’m not familiar with. Wiki is much easier to navigate than WebMD.

  2. I certainly would never cite to a Wikipedia article in a court document, and I would not even reference Wikipedia to an attorney who provided me with a research assignment at work. But I agree with both previous posts that it can be helpful for initially learning about background material. I also notice that Wikipedia often provides the first link to many Google searches, which might be another reason why so many rely on it (and why so many update it).

  3. Speaking as a Wikipedia editor of several years, I can only completely agree with the court’s opinion. We’re useful – and I think I can state that “it’s useful” is objective fact given the site is a top-10 website by word of mouth – but we don’t and can’t claim “reliability.” It’s just written by people doing their best to write a good and useful reference.

    Many judicial opinions quote Wikipedia, but generally they do so to give a general background on something – i.e., what people get from an encyclopedia – rather than as a material factor in the judgement. For that sort of thing, one needs to go to the solid original sources!

    (“Reliability” from an encyclopedia is a chimera. The essential problem is readers who want to be freed from the obligation to think about what they’re reading, and Wikipedia expressly doesn’t give them that. Britannica sort of claims to give them that in its promotions, but their disclaimer seems to disclaim even more than Wikipedia’s does. You are never free to stop thinking about what you read, anywhere; we just try to make that obvious.)

  4. David, thanks for that perspective, it made me think as I read. :) One response I’d offer is that it’s not _quite_ true that wikipedia entries are always “just written by people doing their best to write a good and useful reference.” On occasion, instead, it is at least temporarily hijacked by people trying to create a one-sided and biased presentation about some controversy. For such entries, I often find the sort of “back pages,” the record of changes and debates, to be more interesting reading than the entry itself. Of course, in one way, the minute-by-minute editability and the availability of this background information makes wikipedia in a way more reliable than a text like Britannica, which is presented as a closed, accomplished fact. Still, in another way, wikipedia’s _reliability_ is undeniably more “chimera” like, at least, with regard to any particular entry at any particular point in time.

  5. “On occasion, instead, it is at least temporarily hijacked by people trying to create a one-sided and biased presentation about some controversy.”

    The catch is, they also think they’re just people doing their best to write a good and useful reference ;-) They wouldn’t be nearly as problematic if they weren’t acting from complete sincerity.

    In practice, the readers don’t seem to care if the editors are at each others’ throats, as most Internet users get used enough to intraweb arguments to actively not care; they don’t worry about the insides of the sausage factory, just that the sausages are tasty and nutritious and don’t have too much sawdust.

  6. sarah geiger Says:

    im doing a debate on this topic and this site was very helpful. i agree with what this court says, yes it is “convenient”but should not be used as a source nor for any academic reasons.

  7. […] are two of many reasons why Wikipedia is “inherently unreliable” and should only be used when you need a quick unreliable answer or to avoid sticking your […]

  8. In the U.S. Court of Claims in Campbell ex rel. Campbell v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 69 Fed. Cl. 775 (2006) the question of the disclaimer was raised:

    “A review of the Wikipedia website reveals a pervasive and, for our purposes, disturbing series of disclaimers, among them, that: (i) any given Wikipedia article ‘may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized;’ (ii) Wikipedia articles are ‘also subject to remarkable oversights and omissions;’ (iii) ‘Wikipedia articles (or series of related articles) are liable to be incomplete in ways that would be less usual in a more tightly controlled reference work;’ (iv) ‘[a]nother problem with a lot of content on Wikipedia is that many contributors do not cite their sources, something that makes it hard for the reader to judge the credibility of what is written;’ and (v) ‘many articles commence their lives as partisan drafts” and may be “caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint.’ at 781-782.”

    But most of the publishing houses have strong disclaimers, including the Wall Street Journal.

    Are the “Encyclopedia of Law” (lawin.org) more reliable?

  9. You can turn to Wikipedia for information and choose to learn whether or not what you’ve read is supported by a credible source. To source Wikipedia is just incorrect. Wikipedia is a source of sources, not a source itself.

    It’s like a library, there are true facts and false facts, it just depends on the credibility behind the statements. I have seen some Wikipedia sources that directed me to some cheap geocities.com sites. You don’t read a book and say “The library is a good writer.”

  10. Wikipedia is the most unreliable encyclopedia you can find on the net, and I agree with the Court.

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