Legal Research Texts Should Stay Out of the Databases

Legal Research Texts Should Stay Out of the Databases by David Whelan I have recently written a text intended for lawyers and others who need practical information about online research. The experience has perhaps made me more thoughtful about texts than I might have been in the past. As a library manager, I often deal with secondary legal research (commentary, texts) from the perspective of cost and usage. Both of the US versions of the Westlaw and LexisNexis databases are stuffed with secondary content. My experience at subscription libraries suggests that these resources are rarely used when compared to the primary legal materials. So perhaps they shouldn’t be there.

There are good reasons for texts and commentary to be in the databases.  First, the texts are digital anyway so putting them into a larger aggregation of information is a minor issue.  Second, lawyers want comprehensiveness.  The legal publishers databases are not comprehensive but the more content, the closer their claim is to the truth.  Third, they can charge more for access to a larger aggregate, regardless of the actual usage.  

Legal research databases operate on the long tail principle.  There is no way every resource is going to be heavily used.  The most heavily used content – recent cases and legislation, which are often available for free elsewhere – accounts for the vast majority of usage.  The secondary resources may be extensive, but they are more likely to be accessed a handful of times a year rather than daily.  You pay for the convenience of access, and pricing is not scaled to reflect your lack of use of these resources.  

Another argument against electronic texts is that, by putting them in a database, you lose the context and arc that the author is creating.  A practice oriented book like mine probably doesn’t suffer from this; it isn’t written with an argument in mind.  So accessing a text like mine in a database would be easy enough, with relevant chunks appearing when they match a search query.  That is how the texts are accessed.  If they are not browsed (and in some databases, the lack of thought to navigation and browsability makes many texts difficult to browse), they pop up based on a search query.  The text is accessed, then in chunks.  There is no need for the text to be cohesive in a database, because it is never going to be read that way.

Let’s get anecdotal then.  The electronic usage data with which I am familiar shows low use of electronic secondary materials.  Lawyers are often quoted as saying they prefer the print to the databases.  But publishers can’t get caught with that argument.  Failing to put their texts online create a perception that their resources are shallower than their competitors.  So they need to continue to make print books available AND provide electronic alternatives.

The database has been the default dumping ground for these materials.  It may be that the future will be and should be e-book formats instead of databases for texts.  That is not to suggest that the content isn’t available in a database.  But if publishers are not going to treat the texts in a way that makes them consumable like an e-book (or, worse, make them consumable in just the same way as a case or statute), then that should be reflected in the pricing for those licenses.  Anyone licensing that secondary content will probably need to purchase a couple of print volumes in specific areas if they really want to have a usable research tool.  

I am interested to see what happens with my book, which was designed to be an e-book, with a print option and a companion blog; I’ll post something about writing it when it is finally published.  But authoring a text for lawyers hasn’t given me any new insight to suggest that putting it, or any other text, in a database, is something that a researcher should be paying for and that really provides value.

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