Students Always Find the Wikipedia Shortcuts

by Nicole Downing

It was that time of year in Advanced Legal Research for a discussion of legislative history. During the lecture portion of the class, I devoted a good amount of time to a step-by-step process for locating a bill number when you start with a code section. After the students worked independently on an exercise using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, we came back together to discuss. I was happy to hear the correct bill number from my students and asked one student to explain how she found it. Did she take me through the same process I had discussed 20 minutes earlier? No. She found the bill number on Wikipedia.

Wikimedia Commons License

Wikipedia. It continues to offer shortcuts to the various legal research processes we teach, but I don’t think I had realized quite how much it had encroached on legislative history research until I took a close look at the page for Sarbanes-Oxley. Sure enough, the infobox has gotten incredibly detailed.

I don’t prevent my students from using Google or Wikipedia in my class. In fact, I tell them to include their Google searches in their research logs. If they are using it, I want to see it. The goal is to teach them skills they will use in practice. In practice, they will often begin their research with a Google search. So I want to teach them how best to incorporate these searches in a more thorough, traditional research process. Use Google or Wikipedia to get an overview, a public law number, or a bill number, but be a critical user of the information you find over the free internet and continue your research in reliable legal databases.

With that in mind, I want to discuss a bit about what is going on with legislative history on Wikipedia. Legislative history information is contained in the infobox on the right-hand side of a law’s Wikipedia page. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a typical example of what you would see describing a law: the title, public law number, Statutes at Large citation, codification, and a list of legislative history notes. The list includes major steps in the legislative process: introduction of the bill, house and senate votes, and the presidential signing.

While the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s infobox may be typical, it only scratches the surface of the information that can be in the infobox. Wikipedia provides templates for these infoboxes. Take a look at the one for US Legislation here or one more broadly labeled Legislation here. There is the potential to include a lot of detailed information, including the readings of the bill, conference committees, committee reports, amending laws, and supreme court case citations. All on a Wikipedia page for the law.

The sources linked are all free sources. For major steps in the legislative process (bills, votes, reports), links are often provided to government websites like FDSys, Congress.gov, the US Senate website, and the House of Representatives website. Some documents include links to PDFs from official publications (take a look at the public law for the Clean Air Act), while history notes may link to a non-government website (check out the Civil Rights Act of 1964 footnotes that cite to Govtrack.us). Hyperlinked references in the infobox may also link to other Wikipedia sites, like the name of a committee or the president who signed the bill.

A lot more could be said about the sources used for legislative history on Wikipedia pages, but it is enough, for now, to note that it is a mixed bag. You will find the information links to government websites, government documents, Wikipedia pages, random websites, or nothing at all.

These are things I can discuss with my students to enforce why it is only a starting place for legal research. I also remind them that even this seemingly detailed information is incomplete and that they will only find pages created for major laws. The law a student may be researching at some point down the road will probably be very important for their work, but it doesn’t mean it was important enough to rank a Wikipedia page. Then they will need to fall back on the process I lectured about during Week 3 of Advanced Legal Research, which brings us back to a recent RIPS Post on realizing the importance of legal research in hindsight.

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