Filtering Out Information by Delegation

A few months ago, in connection with a project to create a research “desktop” for the faculty and graduate students, I interviewed a number of my colleagues at Osgoode Hall Law School about how they do their research. I was particularly interested in how often and how well they used online databases, those to which the Osgoode library subscribes or the two commercial giants (which are free for academic use). I can’t say I was surprised by my informal findings, which can perhaps be best summarized by saying that faculty members use these databases far less than one might suppose and only occasionally with great confidence and precision.

How then do they acquire the information for their scholarship? They read print journals, of course, and often consult print versions of case reports. But a good many hire research assistants (RA’s) to gather data for them, who, as in all Canadian law schools, will almost always be students. My teaching experience tells me that students, by and large, are not much more adept at knowing about and using electronic resources than are the faculty. Their training in legal research, though careful in first year law school, is typically not pursued in later years — many will take summer refresher courses only just prior to starting articles with their law firms. As well, RA’s can’t be as clear about the aim and scope of the research project as their faculty employers. Nor, one imagines, can they be as skilled at legal analysis in its fullest sense, if only because they have not yet had the experience that the faculty has had.

So why would faculty researchers rely on RA’s? A host of reasons are plausible, ranging from the fact that many find basic research tedious, through lack of time, to fear of information technology. I don’t have the data to suggest which reasons are most common, or whether other reasons are truly explanatory. Human behaviour is always “over determined,” but one of the determining threads in the braid might — just might, I say — explain the use of RA’s by some faculty members, numbers unknown.

I think some use RA’s as a means of reducing the amount of relevant information that comes to their attention. There’s more out there than can be read, let alone digested, so a researcher must have a means of trimming the influx. The ideal throttle might be a set of rigourously precise search criteria aimed at an exactly right set of databases. But this is not within the power of most faculty researchers, who find it hard enough to keep up with changes in the basics of information technology, let alone the nuances and cutting edge developments that would be necessary to apply such a restriction.

I don’t say that faculty researchers do this as a conscious means of limiting input; I think the relative inefficiency of using an RA to get information turns out to be useful and provides a wall of ignorance and so is left in place as a research practice. “I don’t / can’t know what’s behind the RA’s report,” goes the thinking, “And though I know I could do better, I don’t want to learn more,” goes the unconscious wish.

I also don’t say it’s a bad thing. Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. So, to limit the torrent of information in this way probably has little impact on how much wisdom their is in the final written piece.

In every profession — every aspect of ours — inefficiency has its uses; and cutting down on the amount of information received is one of them. In the practice of law, of course, there are also financial and other constraints that squeeze researchers and make them call a halt at some point short of perfection. But it might be worth considering that attempts to “improve” a researcher’s skills, particularly when that researcher is a faculty member using an RA, may meet resistance and fail for non-obvious reasons.


  1. Simon, This is interesting, although not at all surprising. It is actually, I think, one of the main reasons that librarians experience so much difficulty in weening academics away from print publications in favour of electronic access. People who rely on others for much of their research assistance are necessarily out-of-touch with online developments (and not interested in learning about them) and consequently react negatively to loss of printed materials – which is what they are familiar with. Online equivalents are new and maybe ‘unreliable’. This is a generational thing though that will be behind us over the next ten years. Getting the current generation of students to use anything at all in print is likely to be the bigger problem…