Research suggesting Wikipedia may influence legal reasoning of Irish judges ‘clearly wrong’

Judicial sources reject findings, saying legal authorities and submissions put before the court are the basis for judgments

High Court judicial sources have strongly rejected findings in a random research experiment that anonymous legal articles on Wikipedia are 20 per cent more likely to influence the legal reasoning of judges than articles not on the online reference site.

Judicial sources expressed concerns about the methodology for the research and how findings were reached.

The sources were responding to findings in a paper, published online on Wednesday, by lead researcher Neil Thompson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Brian Flanagan, Edana Richardson and Brian McKenzie of Maynooth University; and Xueyun Luo of Cornell University.

The research team arranged for 150 new Wikipedia legal articles on Irish Supreme Court decisions to be written by law students. Half were randomly chosen to be uploaded where they could be used by legal personnel, including judges, and the rest were kept offline and treated as the control group.


The researchers looked at two measures: whether the cases on Wikipedia were more likely to be cited as precedents by subsequent judicial decisions; and whether the argumentation in court judgments echoed the linguistic content of the new Wikipedia pages.

Their key finding was that getting a Wikipedia article increased a case’s citations by more than 20 per cent. The increase, they said, was bigger for citations by the High Court and mostly absent for citations by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal.

In response, a High Court judicial source told The Irish Times: “Judgments are written based on the legal authorities and submissions put before the court, not on a Google search or Wikipedia.”

“If you look at the High Court’s written judgments, running to thousands of pages, all that work cannot be dismissed. The last thing a judge will do is just go into Google to get the answer to the case. That does a gross injustice to the level of attention that High Court judges give to the cases before them.”

The source said there were “obvious gaps” in the research at issue and it betrayed a lack of understanding of how judges here prepare judgments. There is no reference to the way judges are made aware of the precedents relevant to the case they are being asked to decide, such as previous Irish or foreign cases said to be relevant to the issues, he said.

Judges are presented by the parties with books of legal authorities and detailed written legal submissions and these form the basis of their judgments, he said. Passages of relevant judgments are also put before them, and judges would read the cases from which those passages were taken.

The research does not appear to take this into account, he said.

He believed the research was also flawed due to not outlining the number of judgments said to reflect the findings reached.

Just because a Wikipedia entry cites an Irish case, and that case is then referred to in a High Court judgment, that does not mean the source for that reference is the Wikipedia article, he said. Well-known cases are cited in many places, he pointed out. It was “quite a stretch” to reach the disputed findings, he said.

Another judicial source said Wikipedia articles may sometimes prove useful in terms of identifying specific legal articles referred to in footnotes, but the idea that a Wikipedia article would be relied on by a judge in supporting their reasoning for a decision “is clearly wrong”.

A number of former judicial assistants, all of whom hold legal qualifications, were also dismissive of the claims. One said she had never known any judges whom she worked with to access Wikipedia for research for a judgment.

“I would never consider using Wikipedia myself for research,” she added. Her view was the process of writing judgments was “formulaic” in that judges would go through the evidence legal authorities put before them, and submissions of the parties, and reach their conclusions based on those.

Her experience was that judges do not deviate much from the cases cited in the submissions, she added.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times