Legal Research Gone Viral

If a brilliant legal treatise is composed by an academic but nobody reads it, does it really matter?

A study last year by Mark Bauerlein looked at books and essays in English literature at several public American universities, and found the vast majority attracted very little attention from other academics. Other research suggests that up to half of university library holdings are never used. There’s no reason to believe that these patterns in library use are any different in the legal field.

Of course despite my initial premise I do believe in the inherent worth of even obscure legal research that may or may not eventually be used in the development of legal philosophy or ongoing academic dialogue. But I present this dilemma to illustrate the inefficiencies often employed in legal research today. Some legal researchers are using social media to deliver their findings to a broader audience.

Harvard University held a conference last year demonstrating the ways that academics are using social media to communicate with each other. The Guardian noted this summer that social media is not just for marketing academics. Instead, they use it at every step in the process, including some creative ways to use Pinterest to identify trends, and Storify to curate content related to a study.

One excellent example of the use of social media to disseminate research findings is a 165-page report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic) released this week, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan. The study made headlines around the world, and has dominated the conversation on the legality and impact of drone strikes.

Of course the timing of the study’s release, closely following Obama’s recent statements on the use of drones, and its relevance in deeply undermining the claims and legal basis the President makes regarding drones, helps immensely in the dissemination of this work. But the dedicated website and accompanying YouTube video produced in conjunction with the study certainly assist in the spread of the findings as well. Preliminary viewership numbers of the video in the thousands suggest that far more people will digest the research through social media than they ever would have in a traditional journal publication.

I’ve already seen these tools work in this way without a deliberate intent for them to do so. As I pointed out in the current issue of the 2012 CBA National Magazine (student edition), I have found my papers and blog posts in continuing legal education papers, at least two PhD dissertations, and required readings for university courses. Of course I would never have discovered any of this if it in turn wasn’t also online, demonstrating a feedback loop is present confirming the conversation actually is being advanced.

Melanie Fullick, a Ph.D. candidate at York University in Toronto, gave a talk this year at TedxYorkU on Building Paths to Impact Via Social Media (Prezi), showing greater collaboration through social media. Fullick also notes that academics still have a stigma over social media and often consider work that is promoted as inherently worth less. We’re in an era where the worth of all types of academic research is regularly questioned by the media and the public, which I believe could give rise to a greater entrepreneurial paradigm in academia.

Part of the transition will be fueled by simple economics. Some libraries are already moving towards Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA), including pilot projects at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University. Perhaps faculties will consider Patron Driven Hiring as well in their faculty recruitment, looking at social media presence, Twitter following, and perhaps a Klout score.

There is the risk of making holdings subject to a popularity contest. Libraries are supposed to be less like malls and more like a commons that help the users discover information they didn’t know existed.

PDA will have implications for publishers which may eventually dictate who does and does not get published in the first place. This in turn may transform the very nature of legal research itself, forcing it to be more practical and applied to conteporary issues. It will force legal academics to demonstrate in their work not just why their analysis is inherently useful, but also why those outside the law should care in the first place.

And that may not inherently be a bad thing.


  1. Noel Semple just pointed out a current controversy over whether academics should live-tweet conference proceedings, where unpublished and raw work is often presented for the purposes of discussion,

    Scholars often present unpublished work at conferences. But while they may be willing to expose an unpolished set of ideas to a group of peers, academics may be less eager to have those peers turn around and broadcast those ideas to the world.
    The debate over whether scholars should live-tweet sessions from academic conferences, especially without warning, saw a revival this weekend. Naturally the conversation itself, which has spawned at least one effort to draft formal guidelines for what should be considered fair game for the academic Twitterazzi, took place on Twitter…
    Some worried that having someone tweet their insights before they publish might increase the likelihood that they will be scooped by a colleague — although others regarded that notion as slightly paranoid…

    Where some of her peers consider Twitter a constructive tool for batting around ideas, Nopper says she believes that the main reason scholars tweet sessions has more to do with personal branding at a time when many academics are scrambling to be noticed. “Along with it simply being distracting to some presenters, we need to consider how live-tweeting at conferences is a form of neoliberalism, with scholars employing social media to increase name recognition in and outside of the academy in hopes of getting more paid opportunities,” she wrote.
    “[W]e live in an intellectually lazy society with many people responding to others’ tweets but clearly not reading something for themselves beyond a sensationalistic quote or headline or an abbreviated summary — often using social media language or symbols — in which ideas can get lost in translation if they were even understood at all,” wrote Nopper. “Yet people attempt to build their brand (and social media followers) by putting out others’ ideas very quickly in real time without always having to reflect on whether they actually understood them.”

    Of course I read about it from him via Twitter.