Study finds judges are increasingly citing Wikipedia in legal decisions

It’s not just students and internet debaters who turn to Wikipedia in an emergency. MIT CSAIL researchers conducted a study that found that Wikipedia can influence judges’ legal decisions when articles cover relevant cases. The existence of a wiki page for a case increased citations by over 20 percent, the researchers said. The upsurge was pronounced when a case supported a judge’s reasoning and the language of the articles was sometimes expressed in the decisions.

The team conducted the study by having law students write over 150 articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions. Half of the parts were randomly selected and uploaded where judges, lawyers and clerks could use them, while the rest were kept offline to understand what would happen if there was no Wikipedia article. According to lead researcher Neil Thompson, the randomized nature showed a true causal relationship between articles and citations.

CSAIL also pointed out that the Irish legal system is an ideal testing ground. Higher court decisions are bound by lower courts, as in the UK and US, but there are not nearly as many articles on decisions by Ireland’s Supreme Court as there are on its US counterpart. Just by writing examples for the study, the researchers increased the number of relevant articles “tenfold.”

Why might people turn to Wikipedia? It could come down to a simple matter of time. The increase in citations came mainly from lower courts (the High Court) and not from the Supreme Court itself or the Court of Appeal. For CSAIL, this indicated that judges and court clerks were using Wikipedia to deal with crowded court files—it was easier to find precedents with a quick online search.

The results are potentially problematic. While the cases themselves may be valid, Wikipedia isn’t always accurate. There is a risk of a judge making a decision based on an erroneous article, or malicious actors manipulating articles to falsify the outcome of a trial. Study co-author Brian Flanagan argued that the legal community should verify that any online analysis, whether from Wikipedia or elsewhere, is both comprehensive and drawn from expert sources.

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