Our speaker at today’s Austin Bar Civil Appellate Lunch was Robert Dubose, whose topic was “Can I Cite Wikipedia? The Ethics of Citing Online Information on Appeal.”

This blog post shares a tip for how to cite Wikipedia, when you’ve already decided that you want to refer to the largest single compendium of human knowledge ever assembled.

Accuracy vs. Authority

Robert pointed out that Wikipedia tends to be very accurate, at least for topics that get a relatively high volume of community involvement. Studies show that it can be more accurate that a carefully peer-edited encyclopedia. On the other hand, the prose tends to be choppy and difficult to read in large doses — it’s a patchwork of styles from different contributors. So you probably don’t want to read the history of a major event (like World War II) on Wikipedia, even if there are a huge number of (accurate) facts.

When you think about writing a formal citation to Wikipedia, you confront the difference between authority and accuracy. It’s certainly not authoritative based on the identity of any particular author — you do not know who wrote an article, nor do you know who has contributed edits (or approved of the text and left well enough alone). But the fact that so many people have an editing pen creates a kind of distributed peer review. As Clay Shirky put it: “[Wikipedia] took one of the best ideas of the last 500 years — peer review — and expanded its field of operation so dramatically that it changed the way authority is configured.”

For a profession in the authority business — in how we cite cases, in how we pitch our own skills, in how we deal with expert witnesses — this disconnect can be hard to accept. But a crowdsourced reference can be extremely valuable as a place to start deeper research or for information more generally known.

When You Do Cite Wikipedia, How Should You Do It?

Let’s say you want to cite Wikipedia for a fact about the world. How do courts do it? Is there a better way?

The Beaumont Court of Appeals cited Wikipedia in a 2009 decision, In re K.E.L., No. 09-08-00014-CV (Tex. App. — Beaumont Feb. 26, 2009). Here’s footnote 3:

“MySpace is a social networking website with an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music, and videos for teenagers and adults internationally.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, MySpace, at http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MySpace (last visited Feb. 3, 2009).

The Court chose this URL:

http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MySpace

As has become standard for internet citations, it used the parenthetical “last visited Feb. 3, 2009.” Is that really helpful? For most websites, can you do anything at all with a “last visited” date?

If you follow the court’s link, you get the most current version of the article. On the current version as it appears today, the sentence quoted by the Texas court of appeals now reads: “Myspace is a social networking service owned by Specific Media LLC and pop star Justin Timberlake.” That’s an entirely different emphasis than it had in 2009. Indeed, there’s now a prominent section titled “Decline: 2008 – present,” explaining how it lost the social-networking wars to Facebook. In a few more years, the continually edited entry may look more like the GeoCities entry today. (“Yahoo! GeoCities is a web hosting service, currently available only in Japan.”)

It’s Not Impermanence. It’s Version Control.

That brings up a criticism you hear about Wikipedia: You shouldn’t cite it because it changes all the time, and you don’t know what your reader will see.

But with Wikipedia, as many of you know, there is a revision history. You can browse an article’s edits with its “View History” tab, right next to the search box in the top right.

This shows you a list of each edit, complete with the user name (or IP address) of the person who submitted each edit.

If you look back about 630 edits into the list, there’s a version from 5:49 AM on February 3, 2009. Some edits fall in the middle of the day, and other times the article is edited several times in one day. But we got lucky with this one. The “last visited” date might actually point us to the right place.

You Can Cite To a Permalink to Today’s Version

If you followed the links that I embedded above, you did see precisely the pages I wanted you to see — the older version from a specific moment in 2009, and the snapshot that appears right now as I’m writing this post. You can check back next week or next year, and you should see the same text.

Wikipedia uses the term “permalink” to describe this type of URL. The permalink to the current version (the one you’re citing) is listed in the left-hand column under the Toolbox menu. Click the word “Permalink” in that list, and the page reloads as itself to what your reader will see. You can then grab the URL and paste it into a brief.

You’ll notice a pink status bar when you load a page by its permalink. It tells you whether or not you are viewing the most current version. It also gives you the option to generate a diff between the link you followed and the current version — a very quick way for a reader to confirm whether the facts have changed in the intervening time. If you click on this “diff”:

The Diff Link

You get this:

As lawyers, we should be drooling with envy. We all know what needs this type of easy-to-link version control that lets the reader easily determine what has changed over time: statutes.

Legal citations for amended statutes devolve into the kind of soup seen in footnote 2 of this same opinion: “Although the Legislature amended certain aspects of the statute that provides the terms for standard possession orders after the possession order at issue here, the changes are not pertinent to this appeal. Therefore, we cite the current version. Compare Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 153.312 (Vernon 2008) with Act of May 27, 2007, 80th Leg., R.S., ch. 1041, § 2, sec. 153.312(a), 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 3594, 3595 (current version at Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 153.312(a) (Vernon 2008)), and Act of May 29, 2005, 79th Leg., R.S., ch. 916, § 12, sec. 153.312(b), 2005 Tex. Gen. Laws 3148, 3151-52 (current version at Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 153.312(b) (Vernon 2008)).)”

Permalinks are Better Than “Last Visited.”

This is what the permalink URL looks like for the February 3, 2009 version of the MySpace wikipedia page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Myspace&oldid=268197951.

When you are citing Wikipedia, you should be using a permalink URL that looks like that.

Last year, I was critical of the new Bluebook for how it treats URLs as if they were the names of volumes of books rather than pinpoints to specific pages. The emphasis seems to be on what the researcher did (i.e., “last visited” or “downloaded from”) rather than how the next researcher can quickly get to the right resource. As I wrote:

URLs are ugly in print, but they are “uniform resource locators.” They are built to do this job with precision. And an ugly citation that works is far superior to a pretty one that doesn’t.

When a site like Wikipedia gives you the gift of precise, persistent URLs, you owe it to your readers to take advantage of them.1

  1. As a practical matter, you should also take a screenshot or make a good printout for your own records. On the Mac, I’m a fan of the program LittleSnapper, which lets you take an image of an entire webpage, including below the fold [1MB file]. The software is marketed to web designers, but it’s handy for archivists, too. []