September 8, 2011
What Will Your Firm Stop Buying In Five Years? How About Vendor Content Tied to Their Search Engines
That's the question asked and answered in another installment of 3 Geek's Elephant Posts series. While all answers were interesting, the response that got me thinking about the future was by Mark Gediman:
Q. What will your firm stop buying in five years?
A. Search engines with proprietary content
I think the trend will move away from purchasing multiple search engines, each with their own proprietary content (i.e. Lexis, Westlaw) to purchasing one search engine and then subscribing to the content for that engine separately. So, for example, using the search engine on Lexis to access the web, West content, BNA content, CCH content. This would be true enterprise search.
-- Mark Gedimen
The Return of Old School Legal Bibliography for Collection Development Purposes. If metadata specs for commerical content were standardized (or at least not hidden in the cloak of being proprietary), Gedimen's trend prediction certainly could be the Next Big Thing. Acquire or design your own search engine -- let's assume licensing a search engine since few institutions could afford to built their own from the ground up. Like West Search, buy it. Like Fastcase's SE, buy it. And then development your institution's collection of electronic resources by "title." For example, CCH's Standard Fed Tax (no thanks, IntelliConnent), BNA's Tax Management Portfolios and a couple of WG&L supplemented treatises to craft a beginning of one's institutional online tax collection. All of a sudden, vender database directories become acquisition tools and collection development returns to the days when law librarians applied their expertise in legal bibliography for selecting very specific eLaw resources appropriate for their patrons after choosing a search engine (or two...).
Could It Happen? If we assume that the promise Open Law for primary legal resources will be fulfilled, online commercial legal vendors will be competing on the basis of the quality of the editorial content, particularly secondary sources, and tools they provide. Gediman suggest that in five years time institutional buyers will be moving in a direction that will bifurcate commercial editorial content from one research tool, the tied-in search engine created by the vendor for its databased content.
Love the idea. Hope Gediman is right because it would be a real game-changer. It would be responsive to what professional legal information consumers and researchers -- lawyers and librarians -- really want. But do our "professional legal vendor services" vendors really want to give their user populations what they want or only what the vendors' current business model wants to give them?
Well, now I am reminded of another recent 3 Geeks blog post, The Power of the Blog:
From a vendor and client interaction standpoint, the value of the blog is obvious. Blogs allow you a first person narrative account, an easy way to track clients concerns and your market space. Postings are a primary intelligence source, a way see what people are saying and what needs are not being met. How much better can a client relationship be when there is a clearly defined problem made public and a vendor who willing to address the issue without formally being asked. Reading blog postings is among the most cost effective forms of business development and retention.
Imagine the World of Competitve Possibilities. Of course, there is a new facet in our vendors' business model, selling professional grade eBooks. Imagine where eBooking is heading. Someday you will be able to licence parts or all of the above-mentioned updated tax resources in eBook formats. Add institutional licensing, perhaps using an on-demand pricing model, to Gediman's SE acquisition forecast, and I think our so-called legal publishers will get back in the business of being legal publishers. Oops, my bad. I think I just made the case for vendors saying "no" to institutional licensing of eBooks. Of course, they will first say "no" to bifurcating their SEs from their databased content.
Also imagine a marketplace competing solely for Legal SE adoption. I'm not talking about Google but some bright young thing working out of her or his parent's garage unencumbered by layers of creativity-killing corporate bureaucracy could design a legal SE that blows away SEs offered by WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, BLaw... . Now we are really talking about "next gen."
Applying Search Engine Expertise for Collection Development Purposes. At the moment, I would be a "buyer" of Fastcase's SE if I could apply it to a topical selection of secondary titles not offered by Fasecase, like the one illustrated above for federal tax (assuming Fastcase SE can take advantage of the contents medadata or can enhance that content with its own micro-metadate). I wish I could say I would even consider buying WestSearch but only for case law if someone could persuade me that West Search does not create a Google-like Bubble or at least allows a researcher to turn off what looks to me like the existence of a Google Bubble. Ron Wheeler has studied limitations related to how WestSearch ranks documents for importance and relevance. See Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything?, 103 Law Libr. J. 359 (2011). One is crowd-sourcing baked into WestSearch. Wheeler identifies a serious flaw in WLN's SE. There is no guarentee that a well-formed search will identify relevant output because of the SE, not because of the researcher. This is the "bubble" phemonenon that WestSearch offers.
It can be Google Bubble-like in output. In the good old and still valid today for analizing search results based on metrics of recall and precison, WestSearch is seriously flawed. It may not find the proverbial needle burried in a haystack of irrelevant search results (low precision). Wheeler found WestSearch's metadata-driven linking of related content (to assess relevance) may not work well for broad searches because a broad search may produce “a far narrower range of related content,” with missed search results that would otherwise interest a legal researcher (low recall). It's as if, WestSearch is seeking the one document on point when finding that one document rarely happens in the real world.
How does this Google-like bubble operate. Well, let's put it this way. The Blog Widow a die-hard Republican. I am not. When we vote, we cancel each other other. When we perform the exact same search using Google we get substantially different results. Placed in the context of WestSearch for WLN, one can make the case that its search engine violates attorney professional responsibilty requirements if practitioners knew the limitations of WLN. They do not.
One can make the case that it is our professional responsibilty as professional law librarians to call attention to WestSearch's limitations. In the 21st century "New Normal" we damn well better be sufficient informed to do so. This is no different than the advice we used to provide -- "after checking the base volume, check the supplement and then go online because the even the most current supplement may be 4-6 weeks out of date." The tools have changed. Our obligation has not.
The Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 41-58, as amended) is format-neutral in "prescrib[ing] trade regulation rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive, and establishing requirements designed to prevent such acts or practices." The only thing stopping "us" from enforceable guildelines on the public stage is our own professional association's myopia absent an Library Consumer Adocacy Caucus which AALL thinking up every possible lame roadblock to not approve. If any AALL institutional buyer representative still need evidence that that our professional association needs to reform itself for the 21st century, I can think of no better example that the current push-back from our Old Guard to the idea that we must meet the 21st century head on for AALL to be a relevant player.
So, in addition to applying old school legal bibliography skills, law librarians would have to closely examine the construction of commercially marketed SEs. Yup, SE algorithms are proprietary and no one should expect our vendors will disclosue them. But our professional association could insist that vendors provide some standardized details -- at least enough to verify marketing claims -- if AALL ever moves beyond recommending data specs for vendor invoices.
- Oh wait, AALL could already insist on that sort of infromation. Does AALL want to represent its private sector institutional buyers who drive this market as consumers?
- Oh wait, would doing so "interfere" in licensing? Would that be "anti-competitive"?
- Oh wait, is AALL even "present ready" to recognize that the world has changed in the 21st century new normal where digital-only or digital-first has replaced print?
To examine marketing claims for vendor search engines, right now we will have to rely on the hard work of individual law librarians. See, for example The WestSearch Straitjacket For Legal Research - Thinking Beyond The Keyword: Part I. (Part II to appear on LLB next week.)
In the Next Five Years? I think Gediman is on to something. But a trend in five years? Well, we will just have to wait 'n see. In the context of selling "solutions" a/k/a/ productivity applications, vendors pitch that they are selling the value of the software. So market the software, the search engine, as a standalone "solution" for 21st century's collection development. [JH]