Column

What’s Good Enough?

What’s the best thing about Wikipedia? It’s a source that’s “good enough”. It’s an excellent way to get up to speed when all you really need is general or background knowledge. And the price point is so attractive! But would I rely on Wikipedia exclusively? Doubtful … and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it in an important situation without checking primary sources. 

Some wikis are now appearing as sources of legal information. I was fascinated to read the recent post on this site about the new tax wiki established by Professor Ben Alarie, of the U of T Law Faculty; its objective is to provide an unofficial forum for making known the current views of the CRA and the demands of Canadian income tax law. They describe their content as follows: “Official Interpretation Bulletins do not have the force of law. This is true of the following wiki version as well.” 

Meanwhile, out on the west coast, Vancouver lawyer Michael Drew has created legaltree.ca, described on the site as “a collaboratively built website with legal research resources maintained by the site administrators, and legal literature contributed by lawyers in the Canadian legal community.” The site’s best feature is its excellent bibliography of secondary sources. 

One area of the site is devoted to user-generated content. It contains some digests of Supreme Court of Canada cases, at least one great article on heading to chambers for the first time, and some other short articles. This part of the site includes a tab for “books”. The site says that it will have books on specific legal topics, authored by Legaltree users. But although the site states that legaltree.ca invites authors to submit proposals, no books have been published yet. 

Other sources such as lexpubli.ca and jdsupra.com aim to provide free online precedent services. 

How will wikis and other collaborative sources fit into the world of legal publishing? Are they “good enough” as information sources for the practicing bar? Will they ever be more than sources for learning about an unfamiliar topic quickly and conveniently? 

Another way of looking at this question: as more and more legal information is available for free on the Internet, will the market for legal publications be eroded? The big question is: will the market for legal publishing continue to pay for curation (also known as quality control)? I strongly believe that lawyers are willing to pay for authoritative legal information; in other words, the information has to be more than just “good enough”. 

Jason Wilson’s thoughtful column looked at this topic from the 30,000 foot level. My comments relate to curation from about 1,000 feet. 

What does curation mean for us at CLEBC? When we publish a BC practice manual, it means finding an editorial board of experts in the area; working with them to develop a table of contents; finding great authors to write the book; and then carefully editing all the submitted chapters. 

When CLEBC editors review chapters, they ask: have we covered the correct material? Is there enough depth? Is there too much depth? Is coverage consistent across the whole book? Is there duplicate material? Is authority provided for every proposition? Is the authority accurate? Can the editor (the first reader) understand what the author is saying? 

When all that’s been done, the editorial board reviews the book to verify that it is accurate. As you can imagine, editorial boards made up of knowledgeable, senior, lawyers, sometimes from opposing sides of the bar (plaintiff and defence, for example), with the occasional helpful judge thrown in, will usually have strong opinions about the content of the book. Not only does this combination make for lively meetings, the process ensures that the content of our publications is as authoritative as it can be. 

There’s one final aspect of quality control: our team of copy editors and production staff comb over the manuscript to ensure that the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct, that the case and statute citations are accurate and included in reference tables, that an index is prepared, and that the publication is attractive and easy to read. 

(Note that every step in this curation process is also needed for material published on the web (with some differences on account of the different format)). 

Over the course of my two decades in legal publishing, I’ve learned that most lawyers are strongly motivated to “give back” to the legal profession. However, these wonderful volunteers are only too happy to leave the organization and management of these projects to legal editors (who serve as project managers). Part of our curation process not only ensures the quality of the material provided, but also that material is submitted on time, and that it receives the widest possible distribution. (This is entirely as it should be; it makes much more sense for our authors to be practicing law rather than chasing down their fellow authors to enforce deadlines, for example.) 

The final result is a lengthy, comprehensive, well-written, and most importantly. authoritative and reliable publication. I’m very proud that our practice manuals are regularly cited by the BC courts; here’s a recent example. 

Will we be supplanted by something that is “good enough”? I continue to believe that lawyers will continue to pay for the curation work we do, mostly because the final product is authoritative. After all, I don’t believe any lawyer wants to use a wiki for research, only to have the judge look over her glasses and say “What’s your authority? … I don’t think so, counsel”. 

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Comments

  1. I would just say that the difference in authoritativeness between current online offerings and the traditional publication realm is the requirement to get through the gauntlet of editors or peer reviewers.

    And I would point out that there is nothing preventing that requirement from being applied to online publications. But it would have to be something other than a Wiki.

  2. There is still considerable value in edited content – and I think it is essential that we learn to create and distribute that content in these emerging ways. The book as artifact may be changing, but the need for validated, authoritative content has not changed.

    Sometimes good enough IS good enough – and sometimes it isn’t. Don’t give up the fight – we librarians will continue to fight for information literacy, and helping our clients understand the differences between sources. Publishers, don’t confuse format with value. It’s all about the content.

  3. And to what Jason and Wendy are saying, I agree. Except that there is nothing from stopping a wiki from having an open “unedited” section for new submissions, and a locked-down “edited and authorized” section for that which has been reviewed and edited.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. For our next release of CLEBC online practice manuals, we’ll be including a commenting feature for our subscribers. If you have a subscription, you’ll be able to include a comment on any section of the online book. Our editors will be monitoring the comments and will be using the feature themselves (for late-breaking news such as appeal results, new legislation, or anything that may be relevant to the book’s content). Information that passes author and editorial board review will be included in the next update.
    We’re hoping that this new feature will give us the best of both worlds: authoritative text and user contributions.
    Look for a roll-out later this fall.

  5. This is an interesting model. If I may break this down, the users are paying subscribers who will have the option of providing comments to various sections of the manuals. User comments may be incorporated into the work thereby enriching and adding value to the manuals, with that said, will the users whose comments have been incorporated be given credit of any kind? And/or, will the users be notified that any comments they may make are (I assume) the property of the CLEBC?

  6. Thanks, Verna. We’re still working out the fine points of this feature; you’ve given me some good food for thought.