Study finds judges are increasingly citing Wikipedia in legal decisions

Even judges can't resist the urge to find quick answers online.

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It's not just students and internet debaters who lean on Wikipedia in a pinch. MIT CSAIL researchers have conducted a study revealing that Wikipedia can influence the legal decisions of judges when there are articles covering relevant cases. The existence of a Wiki page for a case increased its citations by over 20 percent, the scientists said. The boost was pronounced when a case supported a judge's argument, and the language of the articles sometimes manifested in the decisions.

The team conducted the study by having law students write over 150 articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions. Half of the pieces were randomly chosen to be uploaded where judges, lawyers and clerks could use them, while the rest were kept offline to help understand what would happen in the absence of a Wikipedia article. The randomized nature showed a true causal link between articles and citations, according to lead researcher Neil Thompson.

CSAIL also noted that the Irish legal system was an ideal testing ground. Higher courts' decisions bind lower courts, as they do in the UK and US, but there aren't nearly as many articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions as there are for its US counterpart. The researchers increased the number of relevant articles "tenfold" just by writing examples for the study.

As to why people might turn to Wikipedia? It might come down to a simple matter of time. The spike in citations mainly came from lower courts (the High Court) rather than the Supreme Court itself or the Court of Appeal. To CSAIL, that suggested judges and clerks were using Wikipedia to cope with busy court dockets — it was easier to find precedent-setting cases through a quick online search.

The findings are potentially problematic. While the cases themselves might be sound, Wikipedia isn't always accurate. There's a risk that a judge might issue a ruling based on a flawed article, or that malicious actors could manipulate entries to skew a trial's outcome. Study co-author Brian Flanagan argued that the legal community should verify that any online analysis, whether it's from Wikipedia or elsewhere, is both comprehensive and comes from expert sources.