The law wiki dream

By Nick Holmes on February 27, 2007
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Filed under Partner articles, Wikis

First published March 2007 in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.

Solicitor Steve Butler, who produces the UKLawyers legal newswire, has changed his former opinion that a grand centralised law wiki could be an enormously valuable resource. Having previously been impressed by Richard Susskind’s comments in this vein, Steve now believes that unpaid volunteers cannot be expected to compete with the commercial publishing efforts. There being no contractual obligation to provide the information, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the lack of resources means that they will never be good enough for the greater public good.

But should we write off the law wiki dream? I think not.

Enough contributors?

I agree with Steve that “maintaining a law wiki is hard”. Indeed, at the time of his original piece, I argued that a wiki of the type envisaged would be an ambitious project requiring a huge amount of time from a driving organisation and a team of editors, promoting the concept, establishing the guidelines, moderating the contributions and generally keeping it in shape and pointed in the right direction.

Steve reports that Andrew Keogh, who maintains WikiCrimeLine, “is now seven months into his wiki and he is not as excited as he had expected to be. There are only a very few regular contributors and even he finds little time to make additions to the site.”

But what if the potential contributors were not limited to those responding to Andrew’s promotional efforts? What if the world were Andrew’s oyster?

In recent forays on Wikipedia I have been amazed to find how many UK law-related articles have acceded and how much obvious effort many of these unpaid volunteers, some from the most unlikely of quarters, are prepared to put in. Wikipedia has, even now, achieved a sufficient number of contributors in the field of UK law for it to start to become a useful resource.

Good enough?

Again, I agree with Steve that a law wiki could not compete with the commercial publishers because it could not be relied on to be accurate. But in answering his own question “at whom are the wikis aimed?” he dismisses the entire market by assuming that use implies reliance. Consider Wikipedia. It does not pretend to compete with the commercial Britannica on Britannica‘s terms. Certainly it is relied on by many who don’t or should know better than to rely on it, but it is also used very effectively by many others in full knowledge that it should not be relied on. It is a fantastic resource, not because it is unquestionably accurate, but because it is much more accessible and eminently good enough to expedite whatever further research is necessary.

In some spheres Wikipedia is arguably more comprehensive than and almost as accurate as any commercial offering, as Susskind reported in his article.

Editorial quality review and article improvement procedures are in place on Wikipedia that a specialist wiki with limited resources would be hard-pressed to emulate. In addition, specific fields have their own specialized and comprehensive supervisory projects. Specifically, the WikiProject:Law is aimed at creating a greater consistency among the law related articles.

And we now have the Citizendium project, started by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, which aims to improve on that model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names.

Viable?

Can a specialist law wiki be viable? Someone like Andrew Keogh would hope to cover his costs. But his direct overhead costs and also most of his indirect costs (his time) relate to the fact that his wiki is hosted on his server, configured by him, managed by him, moderated by him and promoted by him. In contrast Wikipedia is a hosted “service”, configured, managed, moderated and popularised by others. Its specialist editors are free to devote all their wiki time to editorial issues. The advantages of using a “full” Wikipedia shouldn’t be underestimated.

The answer?

I do not suggest that the answer is simply for everything to be authored on Wikipedia (or Citizendium for that matter). I do not either suggest that the answer will necessarily be a wiki as we now know it. But consider the resources we already have:

  • we have “open access” primary resources such as the Statute Law Database
  • we have other freely accessible primary law databases such as BAILII
  • we have specialists such as Andrew Keogh already authoring expert wiki articles
  • we have enthusiasts contributing law articles to Wikipedia
  • we have a growing number of law bloggers, some of whom provide succinct, expert commentary
  • we have many others who publish articles, updaters and guidance for free (and sometimes open) access on their websites
  • and finally we have technologies that enable (potentially) all these sources to be interrogated, aggregated, “mashed up” and repurposed – and we have many who are willing to apply these technologies for no commercial gain

We have the resources and technologies now to achieve something that is good enough to be getting on with; in time this could evolve into “a corpus of English law like no other”. The dream is ambitious, but it is not pie in the sky.