Academic defends research that found judges used Wikipedia
– 4h ago
Researchers behind a major academic experiment which indicated some Irish judges were using Wikipedia as a source in their rulings are standing by their findings in the face of denials and criticism from members of the judiciary.
A paper published last month by US and Irish-based academics found that Irish Supreme Court decisions were 20pc more likely to be cited as precedents in court rulings if they were the subject of a Wikipedia article.
Researchers concluded the “open source” online encyclopaedia, which can be edited by anyone, was influencing judges’ legal reasoning and the language used in judgments. The issue was most common in judgments of the High Court, where judges have a heavier workload than in Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
The findings garnered significant media attention on both sides of the Atlantic and caused disquiet among sections of the judiciary.
Some judges privately expressed concern about the accuracy of the findings, with at least one judge contacting researchers for information on the methodology used.
Lawyers also raised questions, pointing out that judges based their rulings on legal authorities and submissions from counsel for the litigants involved in a case.
But a co-author of the study, Maynooth associate professor of law Brian Flanagan, has defended the project and its findings.
“Following the study’s publication, anonymous High Court judges strongly rejected our findings in the national media. The judges’ reaction is understandable, but mistaken,” said Dr Flanagan, who co-authored the paper with Neil Thompson of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edana Richardson and Brian McKenzie of Maynooth University, and Xueyun Luo of Cornell University.
Dr Flanagan said the research was done using a “randomised control trial”, a technique that is rare in legal scholarship, but common in medical science. Some 154 Supreme Court precedents were identified and grouped in pairs with similar profiles. One case from each pair was summarised on Wikipedia, while the other was not.
“By doing this across a large set of cases, we knew that any difference in how judges used them could only be due to their inclusion or not in Wikipedia,” said Dr Flanagan.
The research, which took five years to complete, found that having a Wikipedia article increased a legal precedent’s rate of citation by the High Court by more than 20pc.
Dr Flanagan likened the research method used to that of a vaccine trial.
“Whether any particular vaccinated individual’s immunity from disease was actually due to the vaccine, we cannot say. Equally, we cannot tell whether any particular citation of a precedent was due to its coverage on Wikipedia,” he said.
“But just as we can still say the vaccine makes people less likely to contract disease, so we can say Wikipedia makes judges more likely to use a precedent.”
He said the research suggested the phenomenon was contributed to directly by judges or their judicial assistants rather than solely through judges taking Wikipedia-influenced passages from submissions by lawyers.