Wikipedia: a Guide For Lawyers

By now, Wikipedia is the thing that needs no introduction. Literally everyone, if everyone means 8someone who is reading this post on the Internet*, knows what Wikipedia is. Wikipedia is the airline seatbelt of the Internet.

But what if you want to use Wikipedia as more than just a reader? What if, rather than just visiting Wikipedia to settle arguments over whether or not you can feed your vegetarian guests the Peeps that have been hanging around since Easter, you want to contribute new pieces to Wikipedia or edit existing pieces?1

Here’s how you should do that.

Wikipedia: the Definitely Do Nots

Before going any further, let’s talk about the things you really should not do on Wikipedia unless you want big trouble with the denizens of Wikipedia and possibly the rest of the internet.

Do Not Create Your Own Page

Do not decide the first, last, and only thing you want to do is create a Wikipedia page about your law firm. Wikipedia frowns on people who promote themselves, and there is a whole policy dedicated to it. That conflict of interest policy is replete with examples of embarrassing self-promotion or self-protection, such as the bad habit of Congressional staff editing articles about their bosses.

If Wikipedia is to function as a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, it can’t be written by PR flacks or you acting as your own PR flack.

Do Not Rage Edit

While contributing to Wikipedia is technically anonymous, tools like Wikiscanner can figure out, with reasonable precision, what IP address made rage edits on a page. Some Maryland state government employees got busted for work day Wikipedia-ing several years ago. The chances you can remain entirely unknown are slim and the risk is just not really worth it.

Do Not Be Biased

One of the fundamental principles of Wikipedia (what Wikipedia calls the “Five Pillars”) is that entries represent a neutral point of view. Presenting both sides of an issue, if there is significant and easily sourceable content, is fine, but Wikipedia isn’t the place for you to make an impassioned argument that King v. Burwell was wrongly decided.

Do Not Post Original Research

Wikipedia is not the place to post your original research on a topic. All statements on Wikipedia are to be attributable to a reliable published source. Generally, you are not a reliable published source (sorry!) and, to the extent you might possibly be an expert on a particular field, citing to yourself will run you headlong into the “no self-promotion” policy.

Wikipedia: The Definitely Do

Now that you know what not to do, what should you be doing on Wikipedia?

Edit Using the Right Methods

Wikipedia now has two interfaces you can use when you want to edit an entry. Back in the day, you needed to feel moderately comfortable with HTML-style markups in order to edit a page. If you are comfortable with that, great. Keep the list of Wikipedia’s markups handy and go to town. Most people, though, will probably end up using the visual editor. The visual editor looks a lot like WordPress or a really stripped-down version of Word. 2016-04-13 15-44-52

Spend some time with the user guide to get familiar with the various tools you can use to format. If you know how to bold something in Microsoft Word, you will know how to bold it in Wikipedia’s visual editor. Always keep in mind that you can undo your changes and if you monumentally screw something up, Wikipedia tracks all changes and can fix it for you. In other words, you can’t accidentally delete the whole of Wikipedia or even a specific entry.

Explain Edits

Explaining your edits isn’t mandatory, but it is courteous. Why did you add or change something? Here is the 2015 edits page from King v. Burwell. You will see people briefly explaining both substantive and minor edits.

  • Explanation of a substantial edit. “More formal, effective wording. Made distinction of ‘qualifying persons’ for subsidies, and those subsidies are subject to the ACA’s jurisdiction”
  • Explanation of a minor edit. “Fix header to avoid confusion; ‘DC Court of Appeals’ usually refers to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which is totally separate from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.”

Explaining your edits isn’t just polite. Doing so helps you look authoritative. Someone changing pages willy-nilly for no real reason is a nuisance. Someone changing pages because they have an understanding of the mechanics of a case or the nuances of a legal news story is useful.

Cite, Cite, Cite, and Cite

Remember how you learned in legal writing 101 that the judge did not care what you personally thought and only cared about what cases and statutes said? The same principle applies here. Anything substantive you add to an entry must be linked to a verifiable source, save for things that are generally considered to be well-known, such as the capital of a country. Wikipedia even has a citation scheme that has full cites, inline cites, and short cites. Lawyers will feel right at home.

How To Find Things You’d Like to Edit

It is permissible for you to edit nearly every page on Wikipedia. That does not mean you should. Obviously, you may wish to find law-related things to edit, but you might have other interests as well. Your starting point is, essentially, “what is a thing I am interested in talking about, but is not a thing I will personally benefit from talking about?” Further, everyone knows that once you start looking at Wikipedia, you will follow links forever, or until your spouse tells you it is time to go to bed. In this case, don’t hesitate to go down a Wikipedia hole. It may lead you to something that has not been well covered.

Or, if you want to use your knowledge where it is most needed, WikiProject Law has a bunch of ways to contribute, including lists of articles that need to be updated.

A good example of a law-related page that would benefit from additional information is the entry for legal aid in the United States. The existing entry is very light on how the system works, and there is a note at the top from Wikipedia editors:

This article possibly contains original research. Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding inline citations. Statements consisting only of original research should be removed.

Let’s say that you spent time in law school researching the history of legal aid for your law review article. You may have run across documents that would help explain the historical underpinnings of the legal aid movement and be able to add to the woefully brief 7-line history that appears here. Indeed, any time you see the “possibly contains original research” note, that entry is a good candidate for you to consider editing if you have some expertise on the topic and can link to verifiable sources.

Adding entries to broad categories is also a useful way to edit. For example, the legal technology entry only lists a few legal tech corporations and is weighted towards older and bigger providers. Updating that list by adding brief new entries on legal tech companies you are familiar with and linking back to the larger legal technology entry would be very useful.

Finally, if you have an interest in some fairly obscure artist or band or historical event, have at it. One day, I will get around to updating the distressingly thin entry on the Shillelagh Sisters, a mid-1980s all-female rockabilly group. Someone has to do it.

Above all, your topic choice, legal or otherwise, should be something you enjoy researching and writing about, but not something you are so invested in you are willing to get into fights with strangers on the internet about it. That path will only lead to heartbreak.

  1. Wikipedia to the rescue: You can’t serve your vegetarian friends Peeps. <a href="">They have gelatin in them.</a> 

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