Saturday, November 23, 2013
Defense attorneys in a criminal trial for economic espionage have moved to disqualify the prosecution’s expert witness, Prof. James Feinerman of Georgetown Law Center, because (they allege) large portions of his expert witness report (a document that summarizes his proposed testimony) contain verbatim extracts from Wikipedia entries on China’s technology, high-technology development plan, and Communist Party. (Here’s the news report.) I have not seen either Prof. Feinerman’s report or the motion to disqualify him, so what follows is based solely on the news report. I should also add that Prof. Feinerman is a personal friend and colleague, so weigh that as you will.
In thinking about the appropriateness of using Wikipedia, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind: first, the difference between an expert witness report and an academic article, and second, what the language in Wikipedia is actually being used for.
In an academic article, nothing should rest on the authority or existing reputation of the author. The article should speak for itself and should present evidence and arguments in favor of its conclusion. An academic article should never say or imply, “Take my word for it because I’m an eminent professor in the field.” It would not count as a serious criticism of a paper by a junior scholar to point out that a position taken in her paper was contrary to the position taken in a paper by a senior scholar.
This is not wholly true in an expert witness report. Here we are generally not asking the witness to engage in original research; we are asking him to tell us what experts in the field think of a particular question. Instead of concluding from the content of the writing that the writer (whom we may never have heard of before) deserves to be called an expert – this is what we might do in the academic context – we start from the premise that the writer is an expert and then see what he has to say about the subject. That’s why it would be improper for an academic journal to publish articles only from senior professors at big-name universities, but is wholly proper for a court to inquire into the qualifications of those presented to it as experts. Of course, the expert can bolster his testimony and make it more powerful by alluding to specific evidence supporting his opinion and citing to other prominent experts in the field who agree with him, but that’s not required by the logic of expert witnessing. What is required by the logic of expert witnessing is for the expert to say something like, “I am an expert in this field, and here is my view of the issues based on my expertise.”
Now let’s go back to Wikipedia. Any given entry is written by anonymous people about whom we know nothing. Consequently, to cite Wikipedia as authority for some proposition is a bad idea, whether in an academic article or in an expert witness report. (Wikipedia can still be useful academically if the article’s claims are well documented in footnotes; you can just chase down the footnote references.) Note, however, that Prof. Feinerman is not accused of citing Wikipedia as authority for what he wrote; he did not say, “The Communist Party operates in the following way, and I know this is true because it says so in Wikipedia.”
What I think he has done – I cannot read his mind and have not discussed this matter with him – seems to me not in essence different from declaring in his report, “I have reviewed the Wikipedia entry on X, and in my expert opinion I believe it accurately states the relevant facts.” In other words, while Wikipedia is not reliable as an authority, that doesn’t mean it is always wrong. The entry might well be accurate, at least in the opinion of the person reading it. I don’t think any objection could be made to a declaration of this kind.
The next question is, if an expert believes that certain language in a Wikipedia entry accurately reflects his personal views on some matter, is there any reason he should not use it? The reason for using it is quite simple: the expert is probably getting paid by the hour, and like anyone getting paid by the hour, he has an ethical duty not to needlessly inflate the time required to perform a job. If a Wikipedia entry accurately sums up everything the expert might want to say, why should he take the time to engage in an artificial re-writing exercise that will just add to the bill? I don’t think it makes sense to disqualify an expert because he tried to do the job at lower cost.
Finally, there is the question of whether the verbatim quotations from Wikipedia should be properly footnoted. An expert witness report is not an academic paper for which the author seeks academic credit, so personally I don’t see an academic integrity issue in this case. The author is not asking you to admire his words or his thoughts. He is testifying about the content of the ideas expressed by the words, and he is doing so on the basis of his own pre-existing authority and reputation. In this sense, direct quotation is not different from indirect quotation or re-writing. At the same time, quoting a source directly without a footnote is bound to lead (and in this case has led) to the suspicion that something is being concealed. That's not good. Thus, my gut feeling (subject to change upon further reflection) is that despite the differences between academic articles and expert witness reports, it makes sense to follow the same citation rules in each instead of spending a lot of time trying to figure out when the different context justifies different rules.
In this particular case, I don’t think failure to cite should count as a reason for disqualification. As I understand it, experts may be disqualified on grounds such as (a) lack of expertise, or (b) evidence that they are saying something they don’t really believe (e.g., previous writings in which they take a completely different position on the same issue). Neither of those problems is (as I understand the story) alleged to exist here.