Wikipedia: Reliable Reference or Biased Blathering?
When I began writing my book
on software intellectual property, I often needed definitions
of terms, lawsuit citations, technical references, and historical
facts. In those long ago pre-Internet times, this meant reserving
whole days at local libraries to sort through catalogs, walk through
mazes of bookshelves, run my fingers along Dewey Decimal-coded book
spines, pull heavy volumes off the shelves, spread them across big
wooden tables, flip back and forth between indexes and pages, and
skim dense paragraphs of text. Now I just Google,
and usually it's Wikipedia
that comes up.
As I wrote my book it became filled with references from Wikipedia.
Some of the information I knew was correct but I needed a formal
reference and Wikipedia seemed good enough. Other information I
could verify at multiple sites, but the Wikipedia definition was
always concise. I had been told by many attorneys that Wikipedia
references were not considered legitimate in court, and I never
use them in expert reports for litigation, but I figured it was
good enough for my book. It was only when one of the reviewers pointed
out that using Wikipedia would hurt the reputation of my book, especially
among lawyers, that I gave it a second thought. I went back and
found alternate references and though the main concepts that I was
referencing in Wikipedia were essentially correct, it was the details
that Wikipedia often got wrong.
And I knew this fact already. My Cornell
Smigel had gone on to be a fairly famous comedy writer for Saturday
Night Live. The Wikipedia page originally said he had graduated
from Cornell. I figured this needed correction, because Rob dropped
out (before nearly failing out) and transferred to NYU
where his dad sat on the board. Rob's story is actually that old
cliché where his dad insisted he become a dentist like himself,
but Rob only wanted to be a comedian, a career that his dad strongly
disapproved. My corrections to the page were regularly removed because
I couldn't document this fact with external references, yet most
of the other information in the bio was unreferenced.
This points out one significant problem with Wikipedia. In the
early days, people entered what they wanted with little if any fact
checking required. Eventually those early pages, and there are probably
millions of them, became accepted as incontrovertible fact. I have
at least one friend whose Wikipedia page was created by colleagues
as a joke, yet it gets quoted as true.
Later I submitted a reference to a Rolling Stone interview with
my roommate Rob Smigel where he mentions not completing a degree
at Cornell, but somehow a Wikipedia editor did not find even this
credible enough and edited my sentence into a short phrase that
has since been removed. In fact, as of today all references to Cornell
have been removed from Rob's bio even though he attended for two
So this points out yet another significant problem with Wikipedia.
There are now editors who have taken it upon themselves to be the
correctness police. They go about removing edits of others if they
don't conform to their own beliefs. Many of these editors boast
tens of thousands of page edits. Wikipedia has set up rules for
editing, but there is only a long process and many level of effort
to disputing an edit, that still rely on these same biased Wikipedia
editors who do not necessarily have any expertise in anything let
alone the subject under consideration. In fact, although my company
and my software is the most widely used copyright infringement detection
software in court cases, even simple links to our website in Wikipedia
have all been eventually removed by an editor who says this is self-promotion.
Why is self-promotion bad if the facts are provably true?
Even Wikipedia states that the information on its site may be incorrect,
as confirmed in this Wikipedia page about using Wikipedia1:
Wikipedia's most dramatic weaknesses are closely associated with
its greatest strengths. Wikipedia's radical openness means that
any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state:
for example it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could
have been recently vandalized
Where does Wikipedia stand in courts? There have been many references
to Wikipedia in court cases, but the rule is that it's a bad thing
to do. Recent studies have shown that courts are allowing Wikipedia
references much less than in the past2, 3,
So my advice is that Wikipedia is great for cocktail party banter,
but don't rely on it for critical facts. The anonymity of its contributors,
the poor fact-checking on the early contributions, and the bias
of unqualified volunteer editors make it an increasingly inaccurate
source that is losing its initial attraction for many.
1. Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia
Citation of Blogs in Judicial Opinions
v. Mukasy, 2008
Shun Li v. Holder, 2010
Cohen v. Google, 2010