Category: Wiki

From Right-of-Reply to Norm-of-Trackback

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way that comments let readers correct you or turn your attention to something you may have missed. One of my recent posts on copyright law illustrates how this process can work. James Grimmelmann has suggested that this right to comment, and to trackback to one’s own post upon linking to another’s post, is a big victory for free speech. While right-of-reply laws may be stymied by Miami Herald v. Tornillo, these innovations let everyone have their say.

Should the mainstream media adopt similar norms? Consider the case of a recent WSJ commentary entitled “The Innocence Myth,” arguing that the rate of false convictions is very low. You can find critiques of it online if you google “innocence myth,” and the WSJ does publish some skeptical letters to the editor. But my colleague Michael Risinger is about to publish a piece that he believes definitively refutes the WSJ piece. As he argues:

If one is at all serious about trying to determine the empirical truth about the magnitude of the wrongful conviction problem, one must make an attempt to associate the denominator with the same kind of cases represented in the numerator. . . . In an article now in galleys at Northwestern Law School’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, I have tried to do just that. Using only DNA exonerations for capital rape-murders from 1982 through 1989 as a numerator, and a 407-member sample of the 2235 capital sentences imposed during this period, this article shows that 21.45%, or around 479 of those, were cases of capital rape murder. Data supplied by the Innocence Project of Cardozo Law School and newly developed for this article show that only two-thirds of those cases would be expected to yield usable DNA for analysis. Combining these figures and dividing the numerator by the resulting denominator, a minimum factually wrongful conviction rate for capital rape-murder in the 1980’s emerges: 3.3%.

The WSJ has so far failed to publish Prof. Risinger’s letter to the editor, and claims a policy against allowing responses to commentaries. But would it at least behoove the Journal to provide a link to Risinger’s work after this opinion piece? I don’t see how this could hurt. . . . especially given time already devoted to screening letters to the editor. The Journal could make the links inobtrusive, as it does in this fantastic article on predatory debt collectors.

I hope that more of the mainstream media (MSM) follows the lead of the Washington Post, which provides great links to blogs (and opportunities for comment) on virtually all of its online articles (including editorials). Perhaps “opening up” the letters to the editor section in this way will be a bit of a burden at the beginning. But as technology makes these online forums more permeable, the usual excuse of “space constraints” (for shutting out diverse views) will be less and less convincing.


A Static and Authoritative Wikipedia

Wikipedia.jpgWikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, is coming out in a static version on CD. According to the AP:

Wikipedia’s advocates like to tout its dynamic nature: Volunteers can quickly respond to new developments and errors in the collaborative online encyclopedia by adding or changing entries themselves.

So it may seem odd that Wikipedia volunteers are now working on a static version on CD, a preliminary version of which was released earlier this month.

The goal is to extend Wikipedia to those with limited or no Internet access. Success with the CD could ultimately lead to Wikipedia in book or other forms. . . .

The development comes as the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 36 percent of U.S. adult Internet users have consulted Wikipedia — 8 percent on any given day. The telephone-based study issued Tuesday also found Wikipedia usage higher among college graduates and younger Internet users. . . .

Since its founding in 2001, the reference has grown to more than 1.7 million articles in the English language alone.

The Wikipedia CD will have only a subset of that — about 2,000 articles, with a heavy emphasis on geography, literature and other topics that won’t change much the way current events and controversial subjects might.

This development got me thinking of an idea that could help solve two of the biggest problems of Wikipedia: (1) since anybody can edit an entry, there’s often information of dubious reliability; and (2) entries frequently change as they are edited and updated, thus making any citation (gasp!) to Wikipedia even more problematic since the facts being cited to might no longer exist in the entry.

These problems are especially important because Wikipedia is being widely cited in scholarship and judicial opinions.

The solution?

Wikipedia should create “approved” static versions of certain articles, which do not readily change and which are reviewed and approved by a professional editor or expert. In other words, Wikipedia could select special editors with expertise in certain areas, vet their credentials, and have them do a thorough edit of an entry. The entry would then be frozen as a special version. People could still edit and change the entry, but the special version would be readily available for those who wanted to rely on the entry for citation purposes.

Wikipedia already comes close to doing this. It has certain trusted editors and it does archive older versions of entries. But to make Wikipedia reliable enough to cite, some changes have to be made. A good system must be developed to ensure that trusted editors have the appropriate expertise — Wikipedia must avoid being conned by a charlatan. And it must be easy to find the expert-approved entry, which must be stable and free from modification after the expert reviewer has edited and approved it. With these changes, these special Wikipedia entries might be reliable enough to cite.


Cass Sunstein on Wikipedia and Collaborative Technologies

Wikipedia.jpgProfessor Cass Sunstein (U. Chicago Law School) has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post about Wikipedia and other collaborative technologies. I recently blogged about the extensive citation to Wikipedia in law review articles and judicial opinions, but I find this statistic that Sunstein provides to be quite amazing:

In the past year, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” has been cited four times as often as the Encyclopedia Britannica in judicial opinions, and the number is rapidly growing.

He goes on to write about prediction markets:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

In general, the results have proved stunningly accurate. For elections, market forecasts have consistently outperformed experts and even public opinion polls. (If you want to learn who is likely to win the Oscars, check out the Hollywood Stock Exchange at Many companies, such as Google, Eli Lilly and Microsoft, have created internal prediction markets for product launches, office openings, sales levels and more. At Google, which has disclosed some of its data, the aggregation of dispersed information has yielded remarkably reliable forecasts.

Although recognizing some of the shortcomings of Wikipedia and other collaborative technologies such as prediction markets, Sunstein is generally quite optimistic:

But the track record of the new collaborations suggests that they have immense potential. In just a few years, Wikipedia has become the most influential encyclopedia in the world, consulted by judges as well as those who cannot afford to buy books. If the past is prologue, we’re seeing the tip of a very large iceberg.

While I agree that collaborative technologies are a very exciting and useful development, I wonder whether Sunstein is a bit too optimistic. Is Wikipedia really “the most influential encyclopedia in the world”? Are prediction markets “stunningly accurate”?


When Is It Appropriate to Cite to Wikipedia?

Wikipedia.jpgWikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anybody can edit, is frequently getting cited by courts and academics. The New York Times reports:

A simple search of published court decisions shows that Wikipedia is frequently cited by judges around the country, involving serious issues and the bizarre — such as a 2005 tax case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals concerning the definition of “beverage” that involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, and, just this week, a case in Federal District Court in Florida that involved the term “booty music” as played during a wet T-shirt contest.

More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)

“Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” said Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. “Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate.” But, he added: “It wouldn’t be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn’t look it up in Wikipedia.”

Paul Caron writes:

I asked my crack research assistant, Drew Marksity, to determine how many times law professors have cited Wikipedia in law review articles. Using Westlaw’s JLR database, Drew found that 545 articles cite Wikipedia. (An additional 125 articles mention Wikipedia but do not cite it as authority.)

Brian Leiter writes:

[Caron] discreetly, does not list the names of the authors of these articles, all of whom should presumably be blacklisted from scholarly careers (unless, of course, the citation was in the context of, “Wikipedia reflects the popular prejudice that…” or “Wikipedia records this error as though it were fact, proving yet again the unreliability of the Internet…” or “In this instance, actual scholarly sources confirm what Wikipedia reports…”).

Inside Higher Ed reports that some schools are barring students from citing to Wikipedia:

While plenty of professors have complained about the lack of accuracy or completeness of entries, and some have discouraged or tried to bar students from using it, the history department at Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the Web site as a source in papers or other academic work. All faculty members will be telling students about the policy and explaining why material on Wikipedia — while convenient — may not be trustworthy.

When is it appropriate to cite to Wikipedia?

I am generally against categorical bans, as the issue really depends upon the context. I did a search of some of the Westlaw citations, and below the fold I’ll list a few.

Read More


The Political Wikipedia

Confused about the latest Propositions on the ballot? Wonder who the heck is on Team America? What is the One America Committee? And to what the Center for Responsive Politics responds?

printing press 2.JPG

Jimmy Wales has come to the rescue and declared independence from the hurly-burly of FoxNews, CNN, talk radio, and the like by launching Campaigns Wikia.

He declares: “I am launching today a new Wikia website aimed at being a central meeting ground for people on all sides of the political spectrum who think that it is time for politics to become more participatory, and more intelligent.”

And in what strikes me as a Yocahi Benkler-evoking moment Wales writes:

This website, Campaigns Wikia, has the goal of bringing together people from diverse political perspectives who may not share much else, but who share the idea that they would rather see democratic politics be about engaging with the serious ideas of intelligent opponents, about activating and motivating ordinary people to get involved and really care about politics beyond the television soundbites.

Together, we will start to work on educating and engaging the political campaigns about how to stop being broadcast politicians, and how to start being community and participatory politicians.

So what do you all think? Can a Wiki or Wiki approach change the way politics runs in the U.S.? While you formulate your answer note there is an irony here. Remember that a little while back Wikipedia changed its anyone can edit policy to have protected and semi-protected pages. Furthermore, Wikipedia had to investigate and block edits from certain Congressional IP addresses precisely because the politicians has been editing content with spin and the like.

There is also the question of just how well Wikipedia and the Wiki method work. I will get to that after I have read some articles I have found that tackle the question in an engaged way and I think merit some reflection.


Wikipedia Changes Its Open Editing Policy

Wikipedia.jpgThe New York Times reports:

Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” Unless you want to edit the entries on Albert Einstein, human rights in China or Christina Aguilera. . . .

The list changes rapidly, but as of yesterday, the entries for Einstein and Ms. Aguilera were among 82 that administrators had “protected” from all editing, mostly because of repeated vandalism or disputes over what should be said. Another 179 entries — including those for George W. Bush, Islam and Adolf Hitler — were “semi-protected,” open to editing only by people who had been registered at the site for at least four days. (See a List of Protected Entries)

While these measures may appear to undermine the site’s democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.

The writing was on the wall that Wikipedia would have to put more restrictions on the editing of articles. I think that these changes are a nice balance between an open editing policy and controlling against abuses. Perhaps the next step is to create a group of “trusted editors,” who will always be allowed to edit, and then have certain restrictions for anonymous editors.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, Wikipedia, Politics, and Anonymity Don’t Mix (Feb. 2006)

2. Solove, Wikipedia Irony: Jimmy Wales Edits His Own Entry (Dec. 2005)

3. Solove, Wikipedia Vandals (Dec. 2005)


Wikipedia in the Courts

In an earlier post, I suggested that students may be competent searchers of information on the Internet but may need more guidance in assessing the relative worth of the information they find. Turns out students aren’t the only ones in need of guidance. In an opinion released in February, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims scolded a special master in a vaccine injury case for sua sponte supplementing the record with “medical ‘articles’ on afebrile seizures” that she located on the Internet.

Read More


Wikipedia, Politics, and Anonymity Don’t Mix

Wikipedia.jpgThe Washington Post has an article today about the recent instances of employees of various politicians editing Wikipedia entries:

This is what passes for an extreme makeover in Washington: A summer intern for seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) altered the congressman’s profile on the Wikipedia Web site to remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms.

Someone doctored Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) profile on the site to list his age as 180. (He is 88.) An erroneous entry for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed that he “was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress.”

Last week, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number — “a couple of thousand,” according to founder Jimmy Wales — constituted vandalism. . . .

Read More


Congress takes action on Wikipedia abuse . . .

. . . but not the kind of action you might be thinking. A law against Wikipedia abuse? An investigation? A blue-ribbon panel? Nope — our fearless political leaders have decided to take up the rallying cry “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Declan McCullagh has the story (via my sharp-eyed, non-Wikipedia-abusing colleague Deven Desai):

The trusty editors at Wikipedia got together and compiled a list of over 1,000 edits made by Internet addresses allocated to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The IP address subsequently was blocked and unblocked.

An extensive analysis reveals how juvenile official Washington secretly is, behind the mind-numbingly serious talk of public policy.

One edit listed White House press secretary Scott McClellan under the entry for “douche.” Another said of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma) that: “Coburn was voted the most annoying Senator by his peers in Congress. This was due to Senator Coburn being a huge douche-bag.”

It boggles the mind to think that Congress is abusing Wikipedia. I mean, if we can’t trust Congress, and we can’t trust Wikipedia . . . my goodness — who can we trust?