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Legal Research Process

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free, collaborative, web-based, open forum encyclopedia. Users can continuously edit these entries, providing up to date information. A login and password are not necessary to access the website's information, only to create or modify an entry.

Entries touching on the law span a wide variety of topics, including pages dedicated to important cases, articles about federal legislation (usually titled using its popular name), entries on individual federal and state agencies, and biographical information on key lawmakers.

When to Use Wikipedia

Wikipedia can guide a researcher to the general facts and issues relating to a topic before turning to more in-depth secondary sources such as treatises.

As Wikipedia's entries are not produced to the same high editorial standards as legal encyclopedias, it should be used with caution, and is no substitute for AmJur, CJS, and TexJur.

How to Use Wikipedia

In terms of finding relevant articles within Wikipedia, Wikipedia provides its own researching tips that may be helpful. A page dedicated to search tips gives pointers on how its search engine works.

As you read over an individual article, review the References section of footnotes at the bottom of each article. These References are linked citations to primary and secondary sources that provide more information on the topic. Click on the citations to get a better sense of an entry's accuracy on a topic.

Additionally, on the left of each page under "Toolbox," is a hyperlink for "What links here." This link shows what other Wikipedia articles are linked to the current article to help you find related materials.

Strengths & Weaknesses of Wikipedia

Reliability of Wikipedia

Ideally, all Wikipedia articles would be of encyclopedic quality: neutral, well researched, and dependable. Users can freely edit Wikipedia articles allowing for fast remedy of errors and coverage of emerging issues. However, this advantage of Wikipedia's design also raises concerns about its accuracy. Some article editors may not be sufficiently well versed on a topic or may have biases. Article vandalism can also occur, and while in some cases it is blatant, in others it is not so obvious.

There are ways for a researcher to guard against these problems. On the bottom of each article is a time stamp documenting when the last edit occurred. At the top of each entry are two important tabs: in the upper left hand corner is the "Talk" tab showing the discussion between the article's editors; in the upper right hand corner is "View history" showing a complete history of the article. You can even ask questions to users who contributed to the text by leaving a message for them to respond to on their user talk page

Wikipedia uses a range of symbols to convey information about any given page. For instance, Wikipedia has a number of "Featured articles" that are considered to be the best on the website according to the editors, although there is a relatively small number in the law category. A bronze star on the top right corner of an article's page signifies its featured status. Wikipedia also employs a range of lock symbols to indicate when administrators are trying to protect a page for reasons ranging from content disputes to vandalism.

A researcher using Wikipedia must take some extra time to ensure the accuracy of any information. It is important to check out the sources cited in the article to ensure the reliability of the information in the Wikipedia article. Even Wikipedia agrees it is best to cite the original sources cited or linked to in the text than a Wikipedia article.

Whether Wikipedia Is an Appropriate Source to Cite

In general, it is not a good idea to cite to Wikipedia, just as one would not cite to a regular encylopedia. Nevertheless, some attorneys have started citing to Wikipedia. Courts have been divided on their attitude toward Wikipedia and it is important to consider each jurisdiction separately. The Fifth Circuit in Bing Shun Li v. Holder, 400 Fed. Appx. 854 (2010), commented that Wikipedia is an unreliable source of information and warned attorneys not to rely on it. For its part, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has cited to Wikipedia, without comment on Wikipedia itself. See, e.g., Ex parte Jimenez, 364 S.W.2d 866 (2012) (footnote 39).

If you do end up citing to Wikipedia, Don Cruse of the Supreme Court of Texas Blog, offers useful recommendations, including using permalinks linking to the relevant version of an entry rather than a "last visited" date.