If you’re a lawyer or an attorney-in-training, you’ve probably heard of Refdesk. This online community of experts is designed to provide legal advice and recommendations from people who know their stuff. Though it excels in article-space talk, it suffers from serious problems. While it could benefit from being hosted on a wiki, it’s currently not set up that way. Here’s why. Listed below are some of the problems.
Refdesk is a community of experts
There are several benefits to using the Refdesk. The community of experts helps to ensure a quality answer to the user’s questions. The responses are generally helpful and accurate, though some are incorrect or a wild guess. There are also some users who post ridiculous questions. Some are serial sockpuppets or trolls. Moreover, some users clash over what constitutes legal advice and what doesn’t.
It excels in article-space talk
When a question arises in article space, the best place to get an answer is from other articles. Some articles will be more technical than the OP’s original post. For example, the answer to the question “What is the walking distance between earth and sun?” involves understanding the concept of “perihelion,” but the OP may not have read the correct article. To find the right answer, a knowledgeable colleague can point you in the right direction.
It suffers from serious problems
There are several problems with the reference desk. While most users are friendly and helpful, there are times when responses are ambiguous or contain wrong answers. Some users are downright silly, posting questions that could never be answered in the first place. Others are trolls and serial sockpuppeteers. There are also clashes between the various users on what constitutes legal advice. These problems are the cause of frequent disputes on the refdesk.
Firstly, it’s not a proper reference desk. Unlike a Wikipedia article, a reference desk doesn’t serve as a research tool. It’s more like a “tea house” where someone can ask questions and get help. Ultimately, the refdesk serves to facilitate research, not answer questions. But it’s not just the reference desk that suffers from problems.
It should be hosted on a wiki
Regardless of the size of your organization, you can benefit from a reference desk on a wiki. The community of contributors is vast, and they have the ability to offer a range of expertise. Refdesk answers vary widely in their quality, from wildly wrong to downright funny. Some users post absurd questions, while others are trolls or serial sockpuppeteers. Some users clash over what is not legal advice.
There are significant problems with this current reference desk system. First, it is not following the rules of Wikipedia. It is not meant to spark debate, but to help people find the information they need. This system should also be time-stamped and centralized. Further proposals may arise as the process moves forward. As long as they are timestamped, the reference desk is a viable option. But a wiki’s reference desk is not the same as an encyclopedia.