The Impact Factor

Information overload, and ways to overcome it, has been mentioned on Slaw several times. I came across this article from SSRN titled “What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know” and it reminded me of the consequences of ignorance. Although I thought the article was going to be about ways to overcome information overload, it quickly shifted to an analysis of scholarly research and the metrics used to measure it, such as the impact factor (IF). I found the use of measurement very transferable to legal research, such as the IF in a legal decision of the number of citations by other cases.

At any rate, it was the title itself that drew me in. I recall an articling student asking for my help in a situation where a client was in trouble (aren’t they all?) because of the performance of a third party and he wanted to know what the responsibility of the third party was. My first question was, what was the qualification of the third party? Then I asked, what did the client ask of them? Did the client give them enough information? Did they perform their duties to the best of their ability, or did they have a disclaimer because they weren’t given enough information? Were they part of a regulated profession? The student had none of these answers. He returned to his principal for more information.

How do you come to accept that you don’t, and can’t, know everything? Each year I’m introduced to new articling students who I don’t think can top the previous year’s group, and every year I’m proven wrong. Yet, no matter how intelligent, and how keen, they are surprised by all the information they don’t know. I think it’s probably not for a number of years that they finally accept that there’s a ton of information available, and they’re never going to know it all.

Recently, on some of the listservs I follow, I’ve been seeing requests for alert services that provide 24/7 service. (Apparently some commercial services only provide updates during regular business hours.) Is this another example of organizations trying to keep on top of information? In my own practice, I have made a conscious decision to restrict my monitoring to weekdays and business hours, to ensure I’m not working 24/7. (Sometimes I envy Shaunna Mireau and her life off the grid.)

I have only been working in a law library for five years, and I am astounded by the advancements that have taken place in that short a time. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a law librarian before CanLII. Or how you found brief authoritative articles without Lexology. Yes, I’m familiar with the Index of Canadian Legal Literature, but that’s only an index, it’s not the full text article. In some ways our job has become so much easier and yet, so much more difficult. I was recently asked to find a tribunal decision for a particular organization based on who the lawyer was not, using free resources only. No, I didn’t find that. Kudos to law librarians in the 1990’s and earlier.

One way I’ve chosen to combat information overload is to review a select group of resources. Connie Crosby wrote about influencers the other day – I consider these resources my “influencers”. I use them to keep me in touch with the latest developments in the areas I’ve chosen to know about. I listen to other law librarians, lawyers who blog in areas my firm is interested in, as well as a few political pundits and policy wonks. I look for the “IF” – if everyone mentions the same topic, it must be relevant. But there are lots of topics I know nothing about, and that is the one lesson I’d like our articling students and new associates to learn. You don’t have to know everything, just find someone who does. That’s what I’m here for.

*Disclaimer: No actual articling student was used in the telling of this story. This is a composite of a number of requests I have received over the years.


  1. In some ways, I think that the longer-serving librarians are having a tougher time adjusting to the “I can’t know everything” universe, because back in the day, we kinda did. There was a limited range of things we could reasonably be expected to collect, a short list of databases available (and we were the *most* adept searchers), and only so many places to look for information which wasn’t immediately at hand.

    Today, expectations as astronomically high – the information sought is likely available somewhere, but how do we tease it out? This is where reliable networks of colleagues come into play. Perhaps now, more than ever, librarianship is not about books. It’s still about the phone (although that call is likely a text or an e-mail).

  2. Karen, I like your strategies of ‘listening’ to the IF. I try this too, but the strategy is sometimes dangerous if you are missing some generalist info. Wendy is right about expectations gorwing…it sometimes feels exponentially. I want to know what I don’t know right now dang it, even if I don’t know what questions to ask to get my answer. Unfortunately, I am speaking of myself, not a mythical articling student.

    Wendy makes a great point about using the “phone a friend” resource. Thankfully as data increases, the number of potential friends do as well. For instance, I would not hesitate to phone the author of an article posted to Slaw for a nice chat about information overload…

    Thanks for the thought provoking column.