Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is WestlawNext calibrated to allow novice legal researchers to find the results they need?

On today's Law Librarian Blog, Joe Hodnicki has reprinted a message from Westlaw sent to the law librarian listservs in response to questions raised by bloggers about the new WestlawNext research platform.  Although I haven't yet taken it for a test-drive, WestlawNext is supposed to provide users with a more "Google-like" search experience.  Apparently it does so by employing an algorithm that generates a list of the most relevant results based on the user's search query. (Perhaps WestlawNext - like Google - "learns" the idiosyncrasies of its user and adjusts the search results accordingly).

One of those very clever law librarian-types thought to ask Westlaw whether the algorithm takes into account the unsophisticated search queries of novice law students.  Thus, the question implies that 1L's might have more problems generating meaningful search results from WestlawNext than they would if, for instance, they were searching for shoes on Google (the response, below, implies that WestlawNext search results are more accurate than if the algorithm took into account novice missteps and thus WestlawNext rewards the skill and experience of the researcher). 

It's an excellent question although as a practical matter I don't think it changes much about how we'll teach legal research next fall.  Regardless of the search engine, the biggest hurdle is teaching students to "think" like a lawyer as a prerequisite to being able to formulate appropriate search queries.  Like writing, the teaching of legal research is dependent on students having some foundational understanding of the substantive law that is the subject of their search.

Questions relating to inexperienced researchers informing the search results. This is a really interesting discussion. I talked to the technology team behind WestlawNext, and student research was never to be part of the algorithm to inform search results. It was a very good question though, and I wish we had spoken to it in our original discussion about the artificial intelligence technology.
WestlawNext is an entirely new platform, and we worked hard in the days around launch to provide the right information to the right individuals. I think we all understand now that there will be questions popping up for awhile as people ask smart questions and as strategy and planning unfold.
We will continue to scan the blogs and listservs for comments that reveal gaps in the discussion, and I will try to speak to those points on a regular basis on Legal Current, the corporate blog for Thomson Reuters, Legal. I invite your questions and comments and I appreciate being part of the discussion.

Westlaw is actively reading the blogs to better understand what questions and concerns you have so please feel free to let them know by posting your questions in the comments section below.

I am the scholarship dude.



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To "think like a lawyer" when formulating the issue to be researched, Jim, but to "think like a law librarian" when actually conducting legal research, IMHO.

Posted by: Joe Hodnicki | Feb 17, 2010 4:41:32 AM

West's claim that it's "We will continue to scan the blogs and listservs for comments that reveal gaps in the discussion" (see http://tinyurl.com/yjwszob) must be taken with a large grain of salt. More than a week ago, I began raising specific questions about pricing and how West conducts its upgrade negotiations with solos and small firms on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/y8exfkv. I’ve also tweeted about this issue frequently in the past week, with almost all tweets containing the term “WestlawNext.” In fact, I’ve even explicilty invited West to comment (see http://tinyurl.com/y8wd357).

When explained all of this in a comment on West's Legal Current blog, my comment was not moderated until after I called BS on an official Westlaw tweet inviting comments. See http://tinyurl.com/y9vvnrb. West still hasn't responded to any of the issues I've raised, in any forum.

Posted by: Lisa Solomon | Feb 17, 2010 7:02:53 AM

Joe, I stand corrected. From now on it's think like a lawyer, research like a law librarian. Sort of like "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!"

I like it.

Posted by: Jim | Feb 17, 2010 1:04:48 PM

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