My boss has been prepping for an ITLA presentation on “Reducing Costs of Legal Research: Best Practices Onshore and Offshore” where she’s discussing the pros and cons of online vs. print legal research. This is not a new issue, in fact, it has been discussed seriously since about 1994, and I had the privilege of being on the AALL Committee on the Future of Law Libraries in the Digital Age in 2000-2001 where we discussed this very topic. Generally, the discussion has tended to lean toward the idea that online research will trump print research due to the convenience of the format and how the upcoming generation will prefer online over print media.

Then along comes a recession and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that online research is “expensive” and for some forms of research – specifically treatise research – online research doesn’t work very well. Take a poll at one of the practice group meetings you attend and ask the attorneys point blank: “When researching in treatises, do you find you are more efficient using the print version of a treatise, or the online version of a treatise?” I’d almost give you 2 to 1 odds that the print version will be the preferred method.
Speaking of treatises, I could probably write a treatise on why we’ve eliminated print subscriptions over the past 15 years. Issues ranging from duplication, ease of use, user preference, space concerns, and cost of updating have all been reasons used to reduce print and increase online. The implied pledge behind this move has been that once we go from print to online, the firm is committed to the online version. But, I think there are some that are suddenly realizing that the decision to go online only for some types of research tools, such as treatises, was not the best decision in the long run. On top of this, I’m also wondering if there is an ethical line that we’ve crossed along the way by charging the client back for the online version of the treatise when we would not charge for researching the print version.

Thus, this is where I came up with the title of this post. First of all, is it fair for an online provider to charge a standard rate of $825.00 an hour for an online treatise that you can purchase for $499.00 a year for the full print version? Secondly, is it fair for firms to pass the cost of these online charges (granted, some have deep discounts, so it could only be $100.00 an hour) on to the client when they would not pass along the same charges for using the print version?
To the first question, you could argue both sides of the issue and probably come to a draw. Yes, it is fair to charge the higher rate because you have the benefit of full-text searching, automatic links out to secondary sources, and the convenience of multiple researchers using the same product at the same time. The counter argument is that if the online version isn’t easy to navigate, and you end up spending more time using the online version than you would have the print because of the inefficiencies of the online version, then the mark-up in price is not worth it.
Note: When I say inefficiency, I don’t mean “training” issues. One of the biggest complaints that I hear when it comes to doing secondary research using items like treatises online, it is not an easy process. The most common complaint is that when researchers use print treatises, they tend to flip back and forth from the index to the place in the book. Although you can “click” back and forth using online, it tends not to be as easy a process, and tends to take much longer to do.
For the issue of passing along the cost to the client, that would probably be on a case-by-case basis for the researcher to decide. On the surface it would seem unfair to charge a client for the online version when you would not do so for the print. My good friend and co-blogger Toby always tells me that “ethical” issues regarding advertising “online” versus “print” can be summed up this way: “If it is ethical in print, it is probably ethical online.” I think this can be reworked to fit the idea of charging clients for print research and online research. If you charge for the print, you can charge for the online. If you don’t charge for the print, then you probably shouldn’t charge for the online version either.