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Why Lawyers and Law Students Can, Do, and Should Use Wikipedia

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 20, 2016 9:58 AM

Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia and seventh most trafficked website in the world, turned 15 years old last week. And as maligned as the crowd-sourced encyclopedia is, it certainly beats shoving an Encarta '96 CD into your computer or, God forbid, pulling a book off the shelf.

Sure, Wikipedia can be unreliable, amateur, biased, unstable. But where would we be without it? After all, you use Wikipedia all the time. We all do. And it's nothing to be ashamed of.

From Blazing Saddles to Anal Fissures

First things first: there are better, more authoritative, and equally free sources of information out there. We at FindLaw, for example, think we do a pretty good job at providing free, reliable legal information for consumers and legal professionals both. (I'd even wager that we're better than Wikipedia.)

And we'd hope no one uses Wikipedia's info for their legal, business, or health decisions. But for pretty much everything else? Yes! Why not! There are few other places on the Internet where you can start looking up Millard Fillmore and end up reading about Proto-Indo-Iranian languages.

For background info, Wikipedia is a great resource, or at least a jumping off point. And it's been used not just by you and I for that reason, but by courts. While the Supreme Court has (appropriately, we think) spurned Wikipedia, the encyclopedia is increasingly cited by state and federal courts.

Between 2007 and 2012, federal appellate courts cited Wikipedia almost 100 times, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports. The most Wiki-friendly court was the Seventh Circuit, who turned to the open access cite for authoritative information on Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles and a prisoner's anal fissures.

But Again, Beware

Of course, just because the federal circuit courts cite to Wikipedia doesn't mean you should. Go ahead and read, explore, or contribute to the encyclopedia, but you still shouldn't put too much truck in what you find.

As the Fourth Circuit has noted, Wikipedia's "open access" policy makes it fairly unreliable. Not only is online vandalism pretty common, but there's a whole host of problematic policies, politics, and petty disputes that play out behind many Wikipedia pages.

Take, for example, Wikipedia's entry on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. That simple entry once turned into a mini war over literary interpretation, as biblionerds fought over whether Humbert Humbert was actually a pedophile -- each battle being played out on the pages of the Wiki entry. And don't forget, some of those Wikipedia pages are written by the subjects of the entry themselves, or by companies with a financial stake in the topic.

Some entries, it turns out, might even be written by robots. The second-most edited article of 2015 was Wikipedia's entry on "Geospatial summary of the High Peaks/Summits of the Juneau Icefield," which was edited more than 7,000 times last year. The topic, though, is hardly one of fierce debate. Instead, Wikipedia users think the page was written by a script, with little to no human interaction.

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