[Published in the OSALL newsletter of May 2008]
The perennial debate surrounding the accuracy of information sourced on the Internet, and particularly the import attached to this information by legal researchers (be they members of the academia, legal profession or public) resurfaced last week on the BIALL1 (British and Irish Association of Law Librarians) network and was reflected shortly thereafter in OSALL2 (Organisation of South African Law Libraries)’s communications.
A law librarian had been horrified to receive a phone call from an experienced solicitor relating to information on a specific piece of legislation that he had retrieved from Wikipedia3. The facts were incorrect and the librarian cited the example on BIALL’s listserv. The ensuing debate included the fact that many who have subscription access to electronic databases are instead relying on information found on the open Internet. It was also mentioned that those “coming through the system these days have never known a world without the internet”. Another librarian commented that “senior fee-earners tell me they have used Google to find statutes”.
This debate is relevant to me for a number of reasons. A significant part of my ‘day job’ involves the administration of two large legal websites ; I am frequently asked by attorneys to retrieve information that is either only to be found on the Internet, or that is likely to be found on it more readily than in hardcopy ; I also instruct Practical Legal Training students on the topic of electronic legal research using the Internet.
Based on the latter experience, I believe strongly that having ‘grown up with the Internet’ is not sufficient on its own to have made the younger generation more effective searchers in this forum. In fact, it is a disadvantage to a few who give the impression they see no need to apply themselves to learning basic search principles nor to develop a search strategy that works for them individually, as the PLT course encourages.
Having recently attended an assessors’ training course, the students I instructed last week were asked to make use of a questionnaire, partly to enable me to gauge the individual level of exposure to and understanding of electronic information, but also to enable the students to assess themselves and make a comparison of their progress at the end of the module.
Three general questions were to be answered at the start of the course : (1) describe what a .pdf file is ; (2) explain what the Internet is ; (3) list the search term you would use to find a Supreme Court of Appeal decision. Despite the fact that the ‘day group’, generally younger than the ‘Night School’, spend a lot more time on the Internet than most of us, few answers reflected an understanding of the structure of the Internet ; many of the responses accepted it simply as a place where one could go to find lots of information. Interestingly, on the whole the older evening group who had not been exposed to the Internet during their formative years – and who had also spent all day in their offices, consequently being already tired when they arrived for the class – expressed a greater appreciation for the topic and an intention to apply new technology where possible.
Although the duration of the course is two days, many students from both groups reported that their method of approaching online searches had changed significantly in that time.
From the perspective of website administrator, I made it a priority from very early on to understand the principles of search engine optimisation in order for the websites to be identified and indexed rapidly and effectively.
Relating the same system of capture / storage / retrieval that our desktop software depends on to documents stored on the Internet is a sound foundation block for understanding how to navigate to specifically what we are looking for and confirming its origin. The structure of folders and format of files has as much significance on the Internet as in any other information system.
Capture and Storage
In the past, relatively few visitors had any interest in or were affected by how material was created and arrived in cyberspace. With the focus moving in recent years to social networking, evidenced by the increasing popularity of blogs and personal interaction on communal websites such as Facebook, people who use these applications are becoming more aware of the structure of the Internet, naming conventions and the use of domains.
It has inevitably been only a matter of time before social networking applications became an integral part of the business community. An increasing number of attorneys publish legal blogs and this is an area that is likely to increase rapidly in future. [refer to index to US attorneys blogs].
When people understand how easy it is to put information into the public domain, they are more aware of the need to verify search results.
The PLT students are also shown how to break down URLs (Uniform Resource Locators or, more colloquially, web addresses) in order to identify the sources and possibly conduct parallel searches.
Search engines and directories are not the only method of retrieving relevant material from what can appear to be a quagmire of information. It is well worth spending time building a repository of trusted ‘parent’ websites for particular types of material.
In fact, the ongoing furore over public domain documents vs subscription databases and inhouse resources seems to me to be largely irrelevant. Each area has its advantages and weaknesses and the aspect that does need attention is enabling users to distinguish the correct forum to meet their requirements.
In response to the current debate, although there are authoritative caches of South African legislation on the Internet, for example on government departmental websites, the PLT students I speak to are repeatedly advised to refer to librarians when seeking this category of information. The primary reason is that legislation is constantly being updated and very few of the documents to be found online indicate when they were issued, published or updated on the Internet.
It is important too that users understand the difference between source documents and value-added subscription services that are protected by copyright and not to be found on the open Internet.
Each has a distinct role. As an example, the recent ‘Scorpions’ decision in the Transvaal Provincial Division was handed down at about the time the day school ended on the first of the two day course. By the time the Night School students arrived at 5pm, the decision was already available on the SAFLII4 (South African Legal Information Institute) website. Being as topical an example as any, the group firstly used news sources to identify the name of the individual who had brought the action and the jurisdiction in which the matter was heard. Armed with that information and, having already learned that the SAFLII website is currently the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of South African judgments, they were able to go straight to the relevant, and authoritative, source. For those who will refer to the decision from an historical perspective or who require value-added indexing, the decision will become available as case law before much longer. Neither source is superior nor inferior : each has a purpose and the user should be empowered to decide which suits his/her immediate purpose.
On the topic of Google, most people who know me are aware that I am a fan of a number of its applications. The reason for my promotion of the search engine is the size of its footprint, ie the number of documents that have been identified and indexed on its servers. That provides an excellent hunting ground in cyberspace – as long as one doesn’t euphorically equate the number of returned results with a successful search. My definition of an effective search is one that returns a list of relevant authoritative results in, at a stretch, the first thirty results, ideally on the first page and, perfectly, in the first three items.
So too with Wikipedia, if one bears in mind what a wiki is – a communal resource which, in this case, can be edited by almost anyone at all – it could provide very useful background reading. However, I was surprised to learn last week that Wikipedia has been used (successfully) as evidence in court (see Wikipedia reference Case ref. O-169-07: In the matter of application no 2277746C by Formula One Licensing BV, to register the trade mark: “F1”. UK Government Intellectual Property Office (14 June 2007)).
Charles Dewey Cole, Jr’s response on the BIALL listserv succinctly sums up the “danger in accepting information without regard for its pedigree”.
Is sufficient guidance being given to individuals who search the Internet for legal information? There are a number of excellent online tutorials to guide newcomers but it may be worth considering creating customised guides for specific groups within the legal community.
Subsequent columns in this series will address various aspects of making the Internet work for the user.
Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.