Wikipedia and Legal Research

Wikipedia was launched this week seventeen years ago. Since its debut on January 15, 2001, the site has grown exponentially in size and popularity. The English language Wikipedia alone contains 5,548,706 articles and Wikipedia is currently ranked the world’s fifth-most-popular website. Its most viewed pages are those on Donald Trump, Star Wars, and various members of the British Royal Family (Source: Wikipedia). So what role, if any, can Wikipedia play in legal research?

As an anonymous collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia lacks the authority expected of a legal research source. It offers no guarantees of accuracy, currency or objectivity. However, used judiciously and with a clear understanding of its limitations, Wikipedia can be a quick and convenient source for some initial or incidental legal research.

Here are a few examples:

As a quick source for background information or context.

Example: You need to find the incorporating act for the Boy Scouts of Canada. The Wikipedia entry provides information that gets you off to a faster start, such as the organization’s founding year (1914) and original name (the Canadian General Council of The Boy Scouts Association).

As a source to confirm the meaning of a term or concept.

Example: A student has been unable to find the “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers” on Westlaw. Googling the phrase, and then reading the Wikipedia entry that topped the results list, confirms your recollection that this is a fictitious judgment involving cave explorers and cannibalism, written by legal philosopher Lon L. Fuller.

As a means to find references or links to more authoritative sources.

Example: The Wikipedia entry for “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers” provides a reference to the original article: Fuller, Lon L., “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers”. (1949) Harvard Law Review 62 (4): 616–645.

Should you cite to Wikipedia?

Although it is evident that Wikipedia is increasingly cited in law reviews and judgments, in most legal research assignments there should be no reason to cite to Wikipedia. Good research makes effective use of tertiary sources like legal encyclopedias (the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED) and Halsbury’s Law of Canada), and occasionally Wikipedia, in the early stages of the process. But these sources are merely stepping stones that should lead you to the relevant primary sources or more authoritative secondary sources to cite to support your arguments.

To date, the standard legal citation manuals, the McGill Guide (8th ed.), the Bluebook (12th ed.), and the Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities (4th ed.) offer no official rule or guidance on citing a Wikipedia entry. One exception is the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation (5th ed.) which provides a sample citation under rule 31.3, Blogs, Microblogs and Wikis.