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User-generated content affects judicial decisions – paper
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08 Feb 2023 / judiciary Print

User-generated content 'affects judicial decisions'

Research by academics has found that the language used in Irish Supreme Court decisions has been influenced by text from online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which is comprised of user-generated content (UCG).

Wikipedia pages were also more likely to be cited by High Court judges as a precedent for their judgments, according to the researchers, who comprise Neil Thompson (MIT), Xueyun Luo (Cornell), Brian McKenzie (Maynooth), Edana Richardson (Maynooth Faculty of Law), and Brian Flanagan (Maynooth Faculty of Law).

The academics examine the “surprising reach of Wikipedia into highly formal settings where processes are tightly prescribed”.

The paper’s abstract states that legal professionals have access to many different sources of knowledge, including user-generated Wikipedia articles that summarise previous judicial decisions (precedents).

Unknown provenance

While these Wikipedia articles are easily accessible, they have unknown provenance and reliability and, therefore, using them in professional settings is problematic, the paper continues.

Wikipedia’s influence is stronger than was previously known, the researchers believe.

This reinforces the importance for public policy of ensuring the accuracy and reliability of UGC, which is already the subject of a broad debate, they state.

“While our results report on the dissemination of correct information via Wikipedia, they also make it highly plausible that false information could spread via Wikipedia. This could be particularly serious in legal settings, where it could lead to incorrect judicial decisions…” the authors state.

‘Wikimedian in residence’

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), based in London, recently decided to appoint a ‘Wikimedian in residence’ whose job is to disseminate medical research and increase the accuracy of medical content on Wikipedia.

The research, published on 18 January, finds that the presence of a Wikipedia article about Irish Supreme Court decisions makes it more likely that the corresponding case will be cited as a precedent by judges in subsequent decisions.

Control trial

In the control trial, summaries of 154 Irish Supreme Court cases were written up as Wikipedia articles, and then randomised into two groups: 77 treatment articles that were uploaded to Wikipedia; and 77 control articles that were not made public, over the period 2019/20.

The researchers then examined whether the summaries of the Supreme Court cases randomly added to Wikipedia played a larger role in judicial decision-making than those not added – and found that they did.

Adding a Wikipedia article about a Supreme Court case increases the frequency with which that case is cited, the research finds.

‘First-instance’ effect

“This effect is concentrated in courts that have ‘first-instance’ jurisdiction, where legal adjudication begins and where case volumes are highest. In contrast, we find that Wikipedia has no statistically significant influence on decisions made by the Court of Appeal or by the Supreme Court,” the academics point out.

The researchers argue that these findings are likely to apply to other jurisdictions, including the United States.

The language used in the Wikipedia article also influences the language used in judgments, the researchers state, and that contextualisation is echoed in the “linguistic fingerprints” of judicial opinions.

Language influence

This indicates that Wikipedia is not being used simply as a ‘pathway’ to the relevant case, but that its user-generated content is influencing the language of the judgment.

“Thus, we find that Wikipedia is influencing both the legal authorities to which the judgment appeals, and the form of the legal argument it presents,” the paper states.

“These effects are only present for citations by the High Court, not for the higher levels of the judiciary (Court of Appeal and Supreme Court),” the abstract continues.

“Since the High Court faces higher caseloads, this may indicate that settings with greater time pressures encourage greater reliance on Wikipedia,” the researchers add.

Additional judges plea

The academics point to former High Court President Ms Justice Mary Irvine, who argued that 17 or 18 additional judges were necessary to allow the High Court to discharge its duties effectively (a 40% increase).

“If time pressure was pushing judges towards Wikipedia, we would expect the strongest effects to manifest at the High Court level,” the researchers say.

The paper says that court filings on a case may also draw from Wikipedia if the platform is used by the lawyers involved, which could lead to judges getting the content indirectly.

Journalists may also use the platform to write up articles, which are then drawn upon by legal personnel.

Profound effects

The results add to the growing recognition that Wikipedia and other frequently-accessed sources of user-generated content have profound effects on important social outcomes, the paper says.

“Greater attention should, therefore, be paid to ensuring that they contain the highest quality of information,” the research paper says.

Wikipedia has over 6.5 million articles in English and gets 18 billion views per month. Search engines also signpost its content in ‘knowledge panels’, to the right of search results.

Influence of assistants

In a query raised by Gazette.ie, researcher Dr Brian Flanagan responded that the study did not distinguish between the influence of judges themselves, and the possible impact of judicial assistants and researchers on the language in judgements.

“But the asymmetries we found in the pattern of citations in subsequent judgments suggest that Wikipedia is being used at the point at which the judgment is being written,” Dr Flanagan said. He added that the research shows no reason to think that younger staff have a bearing as to why Wikipedia is appearing so prominently in legal judgments.

There is no evidence that younger assistants, who may be more familiar with searching for information on the web than many judges, use Wikimedia as an ‘easy’ research resource, Dr Flanagan confirmed.


“Indeed, law students are often reminded of the risks of user-generated content, such as Wikipedia, during their legal education,” he pointed out.

Wikipedia itself also states clearly that anyone with an Internet connection can alter its content, and that its content has not necessarily been reviewed by anyone with the expertise to provide complete, accurate or reliable information.

“The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalised, or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields... If you need specific advice (for example, medical, legal, financial or risk management), please seek a professional who is licensed or knowledgeable in that area,” Wikipedia states.

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