Sunday, February 05, 2006

"WikiPolitics"--Version 2

This is my reconstruction of a post written Saturday, but subsequently deleted due to a glitch in the software.

We have recently been covering secondary sources, including encyclopedias, in my Advanced Legal Research class. As an aside, let me mention that in the past, I had always covered secondary sources near the middle of the course, after covering primary sources; for the last few years, I have started with secondary sources and find that this approach works much better for most of the students. Most students are surprisingly unaware of how useful a good secondary source can be, and by starting with them, I can reinforce their value all semester long.

In any event, while discussing encyclopedias, I talked to the students about Wikipedia,, an open-access, collaborative encyclopedia, which is one of the most heavily visited sites on the Internet, and also about Wex, the open-access, collaborative encyclopedia available from Cornell's Legal Information Institute, Discussing these initiatives is a good way to discuss assessing the validity of Internet sites in general; I bring up the usual criteria--accuracy, authority, currency--and we look at some of the articles to get a sense of how much a particular article should be relied upon.

Yesterday morning, published an article, http:/ that revealed that Wikipedia had had to take the unusual step of blocking some "Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum." Some Capitol Hill staffers had made some semi-humorous changes to politicians' profiles in Wikipedia. For instance, someone changed Senator Robert Byrd's age on his profile from 88 to 180. Another entry claimed the Senator Tom Coburn was "voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress."

Some changes were more substantive, as when a summer intern for seven-term Representative Martin Meehan altered his profile to "remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms." Some changes seem like an attempt to rewrite the public record. A number of profiles were changed to delete any mention of disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. One egregious alteration was made to Representative Marilyn Musgrave's Wikipedia profile. Someone "recast [her] state legislative record...changing a passage reading, 'one of her final failed bills would have made it much more difficult for same-sex parents to see their children in the hospital during an emergency' to the less inflammatory, 'Musgrave spent much of her time on social issues, particularly authoring bills to protect children and the traditional definition of marriage, as well as gun owner's rights.'"

Such "recastings" call into question the reliability and validity of such open-source collaborative ventures, even though Wikipedia is usually quick to discover and replace misleading and/or offensive alterations. I have shared the article with my students, and hope to have a lively discussion in class this week.

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