Developing Ontologies: An Ontology for Legal Research

Almost exactly a year ago Amy Taylor, Emerging Technologies Librarian and Adjunct Professor at the Pence Law Library, Washington College of Law, wrote about creating a legal ontology for basic 1L legal research instruction. She shares her experience and provides a useful methodology that can guide you if you ever set out to create your own ontology.

Taylor was motivated to start thinking about this when she saw a change in headnote presentation in the then new (Fall 2012) WestlawNext platform. The change, in both style and content, prompted her to ask a couple of good questions: “Should we be so dependent on vendors in legal research teaching? Given the paucity of time we have with first-year students, do we have other viable options?

After much research Taylor set out to build on ontology for legal research instruction. To begin with she settled on this definition of ontology:

An ontology is a way to take a set of concepts and organize it in a formalized way (i.e., with standards and naming conventions and a machine-readable structure), using an ontology language that takes advantage of the semantic web.”

She outlines these four steps for creating her ontology:

  1. Define the scope of the ontology
    (Her ontology is grouped into six broad classes: Type of Research Problem; Type of Research Materials; Area of Law; Type of Law; Final Product; and Legal Action)
  2. Gather terms for the ontology
  3. Select the ontology language
    (e.g. the Ontology Web Language (OWL) the standard maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C))
  4. Select the platform to build the ontology
    (e.g. Protege, a free and open-source software program developed and distributed by Stanford University that uses W3C standards and naming conventions)

She presented early findings of her research at the 2013 CALI conference at the Kent College of Law in Chicago. She had been exploring the “transition from print to digital sources” and the impact this shift was having on legal research. Taylor noted in particular that the “structure of legal knowledge built into [legal print sources]” gets lost in this transition and there is therefore a need to provide a “solid foundation” for legal knowledge in a digital environment.

It is likely that the resulting ontology would be very useful for developing legal research test questions for 1L students. For example, it could act as a nice little checklist and provide a workflow when planning legal instruction sessions. As Taylor also said, “I wanted this ontology to be something we could use to convey the big picture, as well as a tool our students could use at their point of need.”

Although Taylor had planned to “host the ontology on a website with a section for instructors to share lesson plans and ontology files” I have been unable to locate this resource. At the time of this writing she was not available for comment, but I would be interested to hear whether this website is still in the works.

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