Research Plugged-In, Too

This time around the Legal Research Unplugged column is a little less legal and a little more plugged-in than usual. As often is the case, I have been thinking about the way students and young lawyers carry out research and the way we teach or guide them in this (the “we” being the more experienced research lawyers, teachers, and librarians who are tasked with or take on the responsibility). However, this time around my thoughts have turned to research skill with tools other than the traditional legal resources, in particular, skill with the tools of a “plugged-in” researcher. Perhaps this is because I am not in the law firm environment at present so I did not participate in delivering the annual instructional program that aspires to furnish new students with the clearly-defined skills and strategies of adept legal researchers.

I have been wondering about the extent to which instructional programs dedicate enough time to non-legal research, specifically using electronic (non-legal) resources, including the Internet. I haven’t participated in a survey of this question recently, so I don’t know what is done in different law firms, courts, legal departments, universities, and the like. My own experience is that there has not been any solid coaching in these skills. Subscription databases of non-legal information generally have been off-limits to students, instead being the realm of what we used to call the “power searchers”.

There was a time when legal research programs in which I was involved offered a couple of hours exploring different Internet search engines and those pages that we used to call metasites, on various subjects beyond the bookmarked legal sites. We discussed what Boolean searching meant, and in which search engines the use of “AND” between terms or the use of quotes had any impact. At that time, it seemed – to teacher and, I believe, student – that information professionals and experienced researchers actually had some useful insights to share.

Has this all changed? Has the obviously ubiquitous nature of web searching changed the dynamic or relationship between student and teacher when it comes to instruction in electronic non-legal research and, as a consequence, the need for this instruction? I do believe the perceived student-teacher dynamic on this subject has changed. Because many students are clearly quite experienced in the use of the Internet, they may not necessarily believe an information professional has anything to offer them. Similarly, there is a risk that more experienced researchers perceive their own experience as old-school or out-of-date, given the pace of creation of new resources and tools.

I also do believe that the need for instruction in electronic non-legal resources does exist, and this instruction definitely should be retained or incorporated in student programs. I know research exists on the way newer graduates – or a younger generation (an unfortunate generalization of the demographics of law students) – access information on the Internet, but I can’t point to any results at the time of this writing. (If others can, please feel free to comment.)

I can offer some observations, though, based my own experience in working one-to-one with students. I have seen very few students type a URL or part of a URL directly into a browser location bar. The default means of accessing web information seems to be to open Google – and only Google – and type words into the search box. I can’t say I have often seen students use any search syntax, even if only quotation marks. This might be a testament to the quality of the results produced in the type of search very frequently carried out, which is a search for the home page of an organization. Or it might be argued that, as search algorithms and design improve, advanced techniques are redundant. However, when the task is to use the web for actual in-depth research such as background information on a subject, a person, an organization, an issue – anything beyond the location of a previously-identified web site or a crossword-solution type of answer – the results most standard search engines will produce from a single-box, syntax-less search will be pages and pages long, with little indication of what is useful and what is junk. The most likely outcome in this scenario will be a quick skim of the first page or two of results. The information professional, though, can illustrate the benefits of a strategic approach to searching. For example, one can show demonstrate whatever functions are available for the particular search engine – for example, boolean connectors and date restrictions – whether on an advanced search page or by using known syntax. Or one can show the advantages of using tables of contents and drill-down menus rather than a search box in the upper right-hand corner.

We often emphasize secondary sources as a starting point in legal research. There is no denying, though, that students tackling a research problem (strictly legal or not) will often head to the Internet before even using an established legal database. Any research instruction program should also include a component on skillful Internet searching. And coaching students in this skill should have the effect of improving their techniques in those established databases and in internal knowledge management systems as well. A nice side effect should be to affirm the relevance and expertise of the experienced information professional.


  1. Kim, What a great reminder that even in the Google generation of law students, information literacy instruction shouldn’t be overlooked.

    I have recently been showing our students shich blogs I monitor for our firm. I give some hints on why I choose particular blogs and what authority to look for in Internet sites.

    I have stopped showing general search engine tips.

    Your article is making me rethink the review of search engine effectiveness and use. What are others doing?

  2. It’s interesting that your column arrives right after Dr. Weinberger’s talk last week. He stated very clearly that “everyone knows how to use the internet”, which is pretty much opposite to my experience. As Shaunna says, being able to critically evaluate the information/sources you retrieve is important, and is a skill to be developed.

    As you mention, Kim, the difference that “power searchers” bring to the research process is the ability to focus. I read a paper in the last year that actually shows that inexperienced researchers tend to use the big engines to try to find the answer, while librarians (in this case) used Google (or whatever) to find sources. It’s the difference between Googling the title of a known article, and Googling the name of the newspaper in order to search for the article.

    I’m designing a training package right now which will help staff in our client tribunals diagnose best sources of information, to help them be more efficient in their searching. (Something along the lines of “when should I use QL vs CanLII vs e-laws, etc).

    Yes, the internet can be a very friendly place for inexperienced searchers, but those of us who make our living from it still have much to offer. It’s up to us to repackage our insight.

  3. Kim,

    Good column. I think every law school should have a course called “Information Literacy for Lawyers” that would take a holistic view of the topic, including legal and business research, knowledge management, information and copyright law. Included in this would be a discussion of the role of information in modern society and how to evaluate the quality of information.

    However, law school deans tend to lack vision when it comes to this topic and only a few law professors would be qualified to teach it (although many law librarians could; however, most law schools in Canada fail to recognize the law librarian’s Master degree as making them qualified to teach credit courses at law school).

    Likewise, law firms should also be teaching their students and lawyers on this topic (we do but could likely be doing it better). However, I find most students and lawyers (quite reasonably) have enough of a challenge with legal research that I do not expect them to master research in different literature (e.g., business, medical, economics). In addition, many of our non-legal business research databases are often only licensed for library staff.

  4. ReadWriteWeb posted a link to an interesting survey by GooseGrade. It shows that some blog readers are sensitive to problems in grammar and spelling, and tend to discredit the content of poorly-written sites. That’s a step in the right direction!

  5. I came across a recent column in’s Machinist section entitled “Why all of us need to be search literate“, which pretty much speaks to all of the above comments. The column describes “search literacy” as “the idea of being able to form a proper question in a search engine (and by extension to one’s peers in real life), and then have the mental capacity to think, analyze, criticize and evaluate that information to come up with the best solution or course of action.” The article references a recent post post in John Battelle’s Searchblog for the term, and laments a user’s failure to differentiate between what the engines are good at doing (defining words or returning short bursts of information – when proper search operators are used) and what they do not do well (providing more complex information from a question not likely to be understood by the engine).