As everybody reading this blog will know, Wikipedia is an online, multilingual, free encyclopaedia compiled using Wiki software. What may be less widely known is the process by which articles on Wikipedia are developed. Anybody with access to the Internet and some basic computer skills can create new articles and edit existing ones. Expert knowledge of the topic in hand is not required: this is not a place for dissemination of original research; instead, contributors are expected to cite secondary sources and adopt a neutral point of view (“NPV”). Errors – some made maliciously, others in good faith – abound. The great majority of contributors use noms de plume or lurk behind the anonymity of IP addresses. It is, however, among the 100 most popular websites in the world. Thanks to Google, it is often the first port of call for people trying to find out about a subject.
The Wikipedia phenomenon has itself become a subject of academic study from a variety of disciplines. Research questions have included whether it is based on “wisdom of crowds” effects (huge numbers of people making large numbers of edits) or driven by “elite” users? How do editors coordinate their contributions? How are rules and procedures created and implemented within the editor community? Why do people spend time editing it?
I want to consider the Wikipedia article “Constitution of the United Kingdom” (to which synonyms such as “British constitution” are directed). This is worth doing for several different reasons. It is probably among the most read pieces of writing on the subject: what we know for sure is that it has been viewed 69220 times in the last 90 days. So far as I can tell, it has been written by amateurs rather than people with a professional or academic interest in the subject matter: as such, it provides a snapshot of a collective effort to capture what is regarded as important about the constitution. I want also to suggest that the quality of the article raises questions about the role of academics and other experts in promoting public understanding of the constitution.
The article’s history and contributors
The first version of the article was started in February 2003, two years after the launch of Wikipedia. During the ensuing 10 years, 564 distinct contributors have developed the article. It was set in motion by an editor known as “Jtdirl”, who describes himself as an Irish “cultural creative” and “postmodern idealist” who subscribes to the view that “This user does not believe Wikipedia takes the expertise and knowledge of academic contributors seriously enough”; but by October 2005, Jtdirl seems to have stopped editing the article, leaving it to others to carry on the work.
Another early editor of the article was “Deus Ex”, who seems to have stopped editing in 2005, explaining “I will not be active in Wikipedia editing for the foreseeable future. I cannot justify spending significant amounts of time on Wikipedia. I am also beginning to become frustrated by the lack of direction and progress – to become a truly reliable encyclopaedia, Wikipedia must have stable versions of important articles verified by qualified experts. … the problem with Wikipedia-in the current set up, it is simply not reliable enough to be considered an encyclopaedia”.
By far the most prolific contributor is “Grover Cleveland”, who to date has made 91 changes to the article. He contributes across a range of subject matter, including US politics and classical music. In all, ten contributors made ten or more “edits”; two appear to be lawyers though not specialists in public law. Several hundred more have made a small number of (often very minor) changes to the article.
Conclusion: the article is the work of non-experts.
Assessing the quality of the article
Wikipedia users are invited to rate articles using a widget at the end of the article. The “Constitution of the United Kingdom” receives relatively high scores as “trustworthy”, “objective”, “complete” and “well-written”. This is a generous assessment.
Any more detailed assessment has to recognise that the article is part of a cascade of linked articles. For example, devolution gets relatively light coverage in the article but there is a separate one on that subject. The article is, in places, historical in its approach though it fails to present a clear chronology of the development of the constitution.
It contains a number of erroneous statements or assertions that are misleading without qualification or further explanation: “Parliament has the power to determine the length of its term.” “By the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 [Parliament] has the power to remove individual judges from office for misconduct”. (Yes, but rather misleading). “However, as part of Parliamentary Sovereignty, Parliament could create new prerogatives if it so wished regardless”. “The Prime Minister is normally a member of the House of Commons.”
The balance of coverage in the article is lop-sided. There is discussion (twice) about the Church of England but the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998 is relegated to a passing reference in a paragraph towards the end under the heading “Other constitutional reforms”.
The article would not pass a peer review process for an academic journal and nor would it receive a good mark as an undergraduate essay (though I suspect it has been cut and pasted into some over the years). But those, of course, are not fair points of comparison.
Conclusion: the article, like many of those linked to it, could be much better than it currently is.
Promoting public understanding of the UK constitution
Academics and other experts from time to time attempt to promote public understanding of the British constitution. This can be done through books (there are some valuable contributions in the New Oxford Companion to Law (OUP 2008), edited by Peter Cane and Joanne Conaghan; and Hilaire Barnett’s Britain Unwrapped: Government and Constitution Explained (Penguin 2002) would be another example). The cost and lack of immediate access to books, however, put them at a disadvantage in the digital age.
Another avenue is that taken by The Constitution Society, whose website (see here) is its main educational resource: it contains some imaginative and well-designed ways of communicating facts and ideas about the constitution.
What I want to suggest is complementary to these attempts to promote public understanding: that people with expertise on aspects of the British constitution contribute to articles on Wikipedia. A coalition of the willing could, relatively easily, improve and develop the amateur efforts of the past 10 years.
Who will join me? I’ve made a few forays in Wikipedia (always using my real name). I’ve improved Stanley de Smith’s biography. In 2011, I rewrote and expanded the article on “Law of Jersey” and related articles. I made early contributions to the article “Supreme Court of the United Kingdom”. Wikipedia is not a place for preciousness: one’s carefully crafted sentences can be hijacked modified by unknown contributors; irrelevances (to my mind) introduced; some dubious assertions tacked on. But if one accepts that writing for Wikipedia is more like standing on a soapbox addressing a crowd than a contribution to a highly refined academic debate, it’s possible to make it a better read. And that’s the point: people, in their tens of thousands, do read Wikipedia. If those of us with expertise want to reach them, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in to editing.
Andrew Le Sueur is co-convenor of the UK Constitutional Law Group, a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Constitutional Law and Professor of Public Law at Queen Mary, University of London.
Suggested citation: A. Le Sueur ‘Wikipedia on the British constitution’ UK Const. L. Blog (27th January 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)