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ResearchWire - ResearchWire: Some Final Thoughts on Internet Research

By Genie Tyburski, Published on April 30, 1999
Genie Tyburski is the Web Manager of The Virtual Chase: A Research Site for Legal Professionals.

After three years of illustrating effective Internet research strategies and instructing on the use of Web-based research tools, ResearchWire comes to an end. Should I have begun, "Here lies…?" Never mind.

Seriously, ResearchWire ends with this column. Readers surely will continue to hear regularly from Diana Botluk, co-columnist, and soon from Michelle Ayers, prior guest columnist, as well as from many other research experts. But as my family will attest, I have to have the final word. The editors graciously permit this delusion; hence, ResearchWire concludes.

During the five years that I have taught Internet research, I have encountered many types of audiences, in diverse settings, with varying degrees of understanding and proficiency. I have spoken to lawyers with solo practices, or with large firms or corporations, and seemingly everything in between. I have presented to many types of librarians, as well as to schoolteachers, legal administrators, and paralegals. And while every group possesses different interests in, knowledge about, and need for Internet research, I have observed some parallels.

Internet trainers will recognize them. They are:

Others exist. Many, for example, believe research begins and ends on the Web. Others possess inflated confidence in their ability to uncover information. Trainers know this.

In parting, I want to discuss the first three and examine how trainers might address these misconceptions. Moreover, as this article’s closing tale illustrates, I encourage instructors to take any opportunity – especially unexpected ones – to teach.

Audiences Typically Do not Understand the Difference Between Search and Research

Whatever the reason, law schools generally fail to teach effective research skills. Law firms unavoidably provide desktop access to information. The lack of research savvy combined with ready access to online information systems results in a multitude of lawyers who search for information without necessarily performing research.

I spoke informally to a group of librarians/Internet trainers a few weeks ago. I explained that during a typical Internet research presentation, I spend several minutes showing relationships between traditional research techniques and Web-based research. I emphasize the importance of Web sites that function like conventional finding aids or that assist in the application of traditional research methods. Of course, I refer to library catalogs, research guides or pathfinders, traditional online information systems, and Web sites that facilitate the techniques of consulting known works, browsing, or asking colleagues, friends, or experts.

A hand shot up: "But how do you teach them to search using these [sites]?" In such moments, I think I really should have pursued my childhood dream to become a criminal defense attorney. If I were as successful, at least the bad guys would be in jail!

Hmm. But what about the innocent? Let me try again.

Searching encompasses querying a database or an index for information. A searcher, whose tools comprise databases and electronic indexes, commands a resource to seek out and return an answer.

Research, on the other hand, involves the diligent systematic act of investigation. While methodical, the process varies from project to project. A researcher’s tools encompass any form of data, information or knowledge. Research may include searching – sometimes to the exclusion of other techniques, but searching may take place outside the realm of research.

I have a friend who performs public records research for a living. When clients call to request information, whether she performs a search or research depends on the scope of the assignment. The demand for a background investigation on an individual, for example, may turn into a search if the client has time or financial constraints.

Research rarely results in instant gratification and perhaps, herein lies the problem. If, in fact, impatience causes those who require research to settle for a search, then Internet trainers and librarians patiently should explain the difference. The decision – to search or to conduct research – of course remains with the client. But at least, patrons and clients will make informed decisions.

Now, how do Internet trainers teach audiences to conduct research on the Web? In the course of a one-hour session, this task presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

I begin by asking attendees to consider a question. Virtually any question works, but I pick one that I think will interest the group. Recently, for instance, before an audience of independent information professionals, who wanted to learn about legal research on the Internet, I asked, "How might I find whistleblower lawsuits involving hospitals that allegedly have improperly coded conditions or diseases for Medicare or Medicaid patients?" Speaking several months ago to a group of middle school teachers, I asked, "Do school uniforms affect student behavior?"

Leaving the question up in the air, I proceed with a discussion of research tools and methodologies. I quickly show various analogous Web sites. Then, I remind the audience about the question and ask how they would initiate such research.

Occasionally, someone offers, "I’d start with Yahoo!" Did I fail? Perhaps not.

If I ask, "Why Yahoo?" and the individual responds that it functions like a library catalog, then I made my point.

Many Think the Information They Seek Exists Somewhere on the Internet for Free

Clients and patrons want quality. They want it fast. And they want it cheap, or better, free.

Trainers would laugh at this combination of demands except for the fact that it is often possible to achieve all three simultaneously. Need a new federal statute, pending bill, or regulation? Find it quickly, for free, and of authentic quality via GPO Access. Want current commentary on a legal technology or a law office marketing issue? Read professional literature instantly, and without charge, here at LLRX.com. Require a HUD form or handbook? Download free official documents quickly at the Web site of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With such gems as these, is it any wonder expectations reach stratospheric proportions? How should trainers address this? How can we bring folks back to reality without sounding like naysayers?

The answer depends on the information needs, experiences, and research savviness of a group. Solo practitioners, for example, likely will require different information and resources from those lawyers working in large law firms. Litigators will possess information needs apart from those of transactional attorneys.

During a lunch break at a seminar for health care lawyers, one attorney told me he finds answers to most questions he confronts in government documents. He rarely needs case law or legal articles. For him, the Internet, and perhaps the telephone, is the be-all-and-end-all of information sources. And since he obtains information from government documents, he pays for it infrequently, if ever.

This lawyer’s research experience causes him to perceive the Internet as a free source of quality information. But what happens when he spreads the word about his experience?

Recently, on the ABA listserv, Solosez, a message appeared in response to a question about the expense of online legal research. It read: "Try http://www.jurisline.com/homepage.cfm[.] It’s a free service that allows you to do a lot of what you do on Lexis."

Presumably, someone who solved a need for information by using the free Web site, Jurisline.com, wants to share this wonderful experience. Yet, aside from Jurisline’s admission that it contains case law data from Lexis’ CD-ROM product, clearly it does not offer a research service on par with Lexis. Lexis not only supplies other data including news, public records, court rules, state statutes and regulations, and more, it provides coverage details, source information, and regularly updates the data. On the other hand, if a researcher requires case law or federal statutes, and can live with the coverage provided, then Jurisline may on occasion serve his needs.

But this is the trouble with hype: It fails to expose these qualifying factors.

To address the misconception that information exists somewhere on the Internet for free, I incorporate hypothetical research scenarios into a presentation. I try to make them of interest to the majority (questions covering health issues for health lawyers). I show how to obtain answers, or how to initiate research, from a handful of resources. When possible, I select both commercial and free resources and illustrate their differences.

One favorite hypothetical question involves using news sources to locate an answer. For it, I like to show Dow Jones Interactive, NewsLibrary and Northern Light’s Special Collection. Dow Jones, of course, illustrates the searching power and depth of coverage available from commercial vendors. NewsLibrary provides an alternative free source for searching the news. Full-text retrieval requires an account, and of course, payment. NewsLibrary’s limitations include the lack of a search-all-available-news-sources feature. Northern Light provides different news sources and the ability to search all simultaneously. It also charges for full-text retrieval.

Trainers may counter these commercial sources by illustrating the time-consuming inefficient process a lawyer would have to undertake to search relevant newspapers on the Internet for free. Of course, point out that select news sources may not exist on the Internet in searchable form, and without charge.

Many Further Believe They Can Identify Bogus Information

It seems reasonable on the surface that those, whose profession relies on information, be able to recognize phony documents or data. Such evaluative ability, however, comes with education, knowledge about a subject, and experience with multiple media formats. Judging information on the Internet further requires understanding of the technology and the myriad ways in which data may be manipulated.

In a recent Legal Assistant Today article entitled "Honest Mistakes, Deceptive Facts," I provide many examples of "bad" information, explain the characteristics of quality in information, and offer advice on how to avoid falling prey to technical trickery. Readers may request a print copy of the article at The Virtual Chase.

Take Any Opportunity - Especially Unexpected Ones - To Teach

At a recent presentation, I invited the audience of health care law practitioners to interrupt me with questions. One lawyer, after listening to my lecture about similarities between traditional research and research techniques on the Internet, commented on my remarks by suggesting that the true value of the Internet lie in its accessibility and in its free and easy use. By way of example, he explained that lawyers no longer have to pay librarians to conduct MEDLINE research.

Well, the example at least is true: Lawyers no longer have to pay to conduct MEDLINE research. But neither did librarians earn vast sums by performing such research in the past.

Rather than addressing the money issue, though, I decided to illustrate the value of librarians. I had opened the presentation with a question about the medicinal value of marijuana. It was time to return to it.

Connecting to MEDLINE via the National Library of Medicine’s new PubMed site, I asked how I should search for articles relating to the question. Someone suggested I query the database with the lone keyword, marijuana. Gotcha!

I explained that marijuana is not a medical subject heading. To retrieve useful bibliographic citations, researchers instead should enter cannabis. Moreover, the research question pertained to the drug’s medicinal value. I demonstrated how to improve the search results by refining the query to include defined sub-headings like therapeutic use.

Undoubtedly, the misconceptions discussed herein present a challenge to Internet trainers. Some attendees may view a discussion of research techniques as academic, a lecture on the value of fee-based information as outdated, or an attempt to instruct about evaluative skills as unnecessary. I have, in fact, encountered each of these attitudes.

But I’m a tenacious librarian. I believe in the importance of each lesson. And I know some learn only by doing. May their brush with fire leave them without serious burns.