Top Judges Use Wikipedia, Research Shows

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Irish Supreme Court decisions with an online encyclopedia entry are 22% more likely to be cited in subsequent judgments

Top judges use Wikipedia when writing their decisions, according to a major new study.

Researchers found that Irish Supreme Court judgments with a Wikipedia entry were cited 22% more in subsequent High Court judgments than a non-Wikipedia control group.

“Wikipedia shapes judicial behavior,” the article concludes.

Previous research has shown that scientific articles on Wikipedia are cited more in academic literature. The researchers – from MIT, Cornell and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth – wondered if the same was true of legal precedents.

To test the hypothesis, they asked law students to write 154 summaries of Irish Supreme Court decisions. Half went to Wikipedia and the other half was chosen as a control group. Before they started, only nine of these judgments had their own Wikipedia article.

They also went into overdrive to make sure the articles were search engine optimized – so they ended up at the top of a Google search for this business.

The cases treated by Wikipedia ended up being cited much more often in other judgments, and the control cases a little less. “We estimate that adding an article to Wikipedia increases court citations of these cases by 21.8%,” the newspaper said. These were “almost entirely” Irish High Court judges relying on Wikipedia cases: “We only see minor and statistically insignificant changes in the citing behavior of Supreme Court or High Court judges call”.

The boffins were even able to make a linguistic comparison between the High Court judgments and the text of the Wikipedia articles themselves. The language was similar enough to suggest that the judges were not simply using Wikipedia as a “stepping stone” to more reliable sources; on the contrary, “the contextualization of the case by law students on Wikipedia itself influences judicial reasoning”.

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Dr. Brian Flanagan, one of the authors, said legal cheek that the findings might also be relevant in that jurisdiction:

“I think you can extrapolate to other systems. Ireland is a common law jurisdiction; a pattern in the way Irish judges carry out core functions can be expected to emerge in the performing these functions in other common law jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom. Given the greater coverage of British court cases on Wikipedia, one would expect that Wikipedia’s influence on the use of precedents is even greater”.

But he added that the greater coverage would make it harder to pull off a similar experiment in the UK.

The research will appear in The Cambridge Handbook on Experimental Jurisprudence next year but is already available online under Trial by Internet: a random field experiment on the influence of Wikipedia on the legal reasoning of judges.

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