Google has delivered two new sidebar research tools in the past month. The first, the Research sidebar, appeared in Google Docs and copies the Microsoft Office research sidebar. Neither one is especially powerful unless the research resources you are looking for are embedded. Fortunately, you can find the Google Web search and Microsoft Bing search as a baseline.
If this was all, though, the Google Research sidebar wouldn’t offer much since you are already in your Web browser. It is a slight benefit to have the research within the document window, so you don’t have to toggle between windows but it’s slight. Lawyers may find the benefit of the sidebar enhanced because it also pulls law journal articles from Google Scholar.
A search for the famous tort case, Katko v. Briney, retrieves two law journal articles as well as the Wikipedia entry. One thing I like about the sidebar is that, if the entry is something I want to include in my document, I can click to Cite as footnote and a link to the resource will be added, with the footnote number appearing where my cursor is in my document. This has some obvious issues – I haven’t yet read this document so perhaps it isn’t what I want and, even if I have, I will need to convert the citation to the appropriate legal citation format with a pinpoint cite – but it’s handy when you are doing your preliminary research. If you think of Google Docs as a research scratchpad, this can bring together some early research results into a single draft memo, for example. With this initial work done, it is easy to move on to a more detailed research process.
There is no way to expand the research options in the sidebar: Google Web, Scholar, images, and a quotations resource. However, you can use the default Google Web just as you would a normal Google search, and can retrieve definitions (define: term) or pull up a Google Map and quickly insert it into a document.
These are similar to the limitations in Microsoft Office 2010’s research sidebar, although you can apparently add services beyond the ones listed (I was unable to find an obvious list of available services). These tools are great for primary and secondary school research but have fewer benefits for legal research. However, there are productivity benefits if you are a regular Google Docs user (or Microsoft Word user) to having the research toolbar available. In Microsoft Word, you can access it by clicking the Review tab in your Office Ribbon and selecting Research. (also ALT, R, R) In Google Docs, look for Research to appear under the Tools menu and you can pull it up with CTRL-ALT-R on the keyboard.