Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute recently launched WEX, “a collaboratively built, freely available legal dictionary and encyclopedia.” Sounds peachy. What is it?

According to an email which has been circulating from the Tom Bruce, Director of the LII [who kindly gave me permission to quote]:

At the risk of sounding a little more diffident than perhaps I should, I’ll say that we’ve just put something sorta new and very interesting on the LII site. It’s called WEX, and we are hoping that it will grow into a very ambitious and interesting project indeed — interesting and ambitious enough that we should be trumpeting it from the housetops, I suppose, but for the moment we’re confining ourselves to low-key conversations with our friends and supporters. Hence this note.

WEX . . . will be the first collaboratively edited legal encyclopedia and dictionary on the web, aimed specifically at law novices.

I referred to it as “sorta new”

because, as matters stand, most of its articles and definitions are

things we developed for the Law about… pages that many of you know.

WEX also incorporates some smaller lexicons and other reference material we’ve worked up over the years. So for the moment, it’s mostly old wine in new bottles. It’s the new form of the container that’s exciting. We’ve noticed a lot of interesting synergies that come simply from putting all of this material in one densely-interlinked place. And the software that stores and presents the information also allows us to (easily) invite others to collaborate with us in creating new articles and definitions and other explanatory material. This will allow us to make WEX far wider and deeper than we would be able to if it were just the five of us working on it . . . .

Some of you will recognize this as an effort that is similar to

Wikipedia (and indeed we use the same underlying software, with some

modifications). For reasons I won’t take time to explain in this note . . . we’ve opted not to follow Wikipedia’s wide-open approach to collaboration. We believe it creates many quality-control issues, so instead we are opting to work with a vetted pool of volunteers. I hope that many of you will seek to join us — we have a lot to teach each other. . . .

I explored the Wiki issue more with Tom, and he said that the hope is that Wex will avoid the problem of a completely invited pool of authors (small coverage) and the truly random selection of Wiki. He continued:

[This is part of a] deliberate decision to blur the

lines between dictionary, glossary, encyclopedia, and

fact-pattern-to-formal-concept-translator. We have always believed that at least a part of our job as aggregators of legal information on the Net is simply to provide opportunities for self-education. At the end of the day that probably makes us closer in spirit to those who launched the 19th-century public library movement than we are to formal encyclopedists. And part of the idea of Wex is that if you densely interconnect a series of intellectual entry points you create a kind of critical mass for learning. In that sense Wex is more of a teaching tool than it is a codification of legal knowledge, and frankly I’m hoping it will put on display a whole lot of definitional and introductory material that’s kept in the desk drawers of law teachers and hauled out once a year in the first few days of a class.

A question I am still left with is why would people with “specialized expertise in law” use their time to publish (currently anonymous) entries? Such folks have significant time-constraints, and presumably Wex is competing with, say, blogging, writing editorials, writing paid encyclopedia entries, and (most of all) writing scholarship. Wex doesn’t seem to allow for named authorship, and explicitly discourages authors who wish to “to advertise their expertise for commercial reasons, or who have some political or intellectual axe to grind.” So, you can’t brag about yourself, push your pet theory, make money, or get explicit credit. What economic theory would then explain posting on Wex? Or, as I sometimes ask my students, WWPS [What Would Posner Say?]

Regardless, a very interesting new project, that will only get better as they integrate more content. [My first suggestion: pull in Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Lexicon.]

Go check it out.

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1 Response

  1. Simon says:

    Should this be seen as having the diametric opposite problem to Wikipedia? Wikipedia’s great strength is that anyone can edit it; it’s main problem is, of course, that anyone can edit it. LII seem to be going to the opposite extreme: they will get total editorial discretion, but only at the price of narrowing the growth.