I missed this January 29 New York Times (registration) story when it first came out, but apparently
More than 100 judicial rulings have relied on Wikipedia, beginning in 2004, including 13 from circuit courts of appeal, one step below the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court thus far has never cited Wikipedia.)
The article does a decent job of presenting the pros and cons. Concerns include reliability and “stability” of the information (it can change from when the Court writes its opinion to when it is released, for instance).
Ken Makovsky thinks this practice will only increase, and he is probably correct.
But according to comScore Media Metrix, there were 38 million unique (Note: comScore Networks says 165 million) visitors to Wikipedia, and therefore, the site has wide usage and, presumably, acceptance. And, according to the courts, if the public accepts it as an authority, it is one. Today, judges are citing Wikipedia for “soft facts” but not those that are central to a judge’s rulings. In due time, I predict this will change.
What struck me about Ken’s post and the Times story itself was the notion of public acceptance of a source as reliable makes it so. Certainly significant numbers of people regard Keith Olberbmann, Bill O’Reilly, or even Jon Stewart as authoritative sources of information. I would guess most courts would not, however. But how does one draw the line in this new media age where the dynamics of information are constantly shifting?
And, of course, this also points to the importance of people monitoring relevant Wikipedia entries for changes that may impact their reputation or business. It also raises again the question of how companies and individuals should address the issue of factually incorrect information in Wikipedia. The community seems to frown upon direct editing, or even encouraging others to make factually correct changes. Yet on most subjects with any level of controversy at all, the oft suggested solution of raising issues on the discussion forums seems likely to lead nowhere productive.
Individuals and companies clearly should not be attempting to introduce commentary into Wikipedia, but there must be a better way for them to make factual corrections or to have other commentary removed. Wikipedia will remain a valuable resource so long as it can be respected for a follow-the-facts approach and keeps itself free of rhetoric, partisanship, politics, and advocacy.
The Times story clearly demonstrates this is not an issue that will go away any time soon and everyone in the communications industry ought to take it very seriously and seek to find good alternatives for addressing the occasional weaknesses in the Wikipedia model.
UPDATE: James Joyner points out that Middlebury College has banned citations from Wikipedia in student papers. So not everyone thinks it is a credible source.