I just returned from the AALL annual meeting in Philadelphia and had an interesting discussion with a colleague about Google.  First, let me set the scene: I was on a panel with Zena Applebaum and we had just answered a question about our favorite CI resources.  A member of the audience then asked why neither of us had included Google in our lists. As I began to answer, Zena wisely tweeted:

There is a debate going on, both within our institutions and in the research community.  Is Google a tool or a resource?  I feel that Google is just a tool, an excellent one that allows us to access a universe of information.  Unfortunately, the quality of the information is always in doubt.  Information from a fake website or a misleading post could be included in the search results, maybe even at the top of the list. The same reasons you don’t rely on Wikipedia apply even more to Google.  Google has never laid claim to delivering only quality, vetted information.  In fact, they have taken great pains to do the opposite.  Look at the disclaimer at the bottom of the page here and listen to the conversation Richard Leiter and Company had with Google Scholar’s Chief Engineer here.

As a researcher, I know the importance of confirming anything I find on Google and noting if the information is suspect and cannot be verified.  In CI as in law, it is important to have a high degree of confidence in the information that your analysis and recommendations are based on.  Google alone does not instill that confidence. 

There is a reason we pay for services like Lexis Advance and WestlawNext.  These services ensure that their subscribers have access to current and vetted content, often with editorial review.  I’m not saying Google isn’t useful.  I am on Google several hours each day.  However, it is for these reasons I don’t conduct legal research on Google when I have these services and others like them at my fingertips.  Just like any tool, a thorough understanding of its limitations is necessary to get the most out of it.

  • Being a law Librarian in the "real world," I see more and more "new" attorneys turning to Google as primary research resource for all types of legal documents. This is an unsettling trend if for no other reason than if you're going charge $350 an hour, your clients should expect you to get off your backside and use substantive resources at a/your local county law library. It is a starting point not an end to a means (which, i suspect, was the focus of the question addressed at the recent AALL conference). it is my belief that any legal professional who uses Google as their primary research tool (or any free service) should be suspended from practice until they've shown they've taken a beginning legal research class as they are doing a great disservice to their clients and perpetuating yet another generation of lawyer jokes.

  • I find errors on the paid services every day. The mistakes range from typos to substantive errors. Just yesterday the major services linked two cases under subsequent history that weren't. The cases were both committed by the same defendant in the same month but were separate crimes committed on different days in different locations. The job of a librarian is to know the strengths and weakness of each system and to advise end users accordingly. No system is perfect.

  • I find errors on the paid services every day. The mistakes range from typos to substantive errors. Just yesterday the major services linked two cases under subsequent history that weren't. The cases were both committed by the same defendant in the same month but were separate crimes committed on different days in different locations. The job of a librarian is to know the strengths and weakness of each system and to advise end users accordingly. No system is perfect.

  • Today's Lexis error involves an ongoing issue with Alerts on LexisAdvance. My alerts are returning hundreds of irrelevant results in the Company field. These alerts have been running for years. However, when Lexis makes a tweak to their system, the alerts return garbage. I have never had a problem with Google Alerts.

  • It is true that you can get errors on the other services. Nothing is perfect. But to discover these errors requires a measure of diligence in making sure you have correct information, the same type of diligence that needs to be exercised when using Google. The real difference between the subscription services and Google is that the subscription services have a mechanism in place for reporting these errors when they occur. And I can report from experience that they listen and take action to remedy the issue. Google has no mechanism for doing that because, as they have clearly stated, accuracy is not their concern.

  • You would think the big publishers to have a mechanism in place, but they don't. I wrote an article for CRIV because I was so frustrated by the difficulty I encountered when trying to report errors. Lexis has a way to leave feedback but there is no way to report errors. Not only do they not have a process for customers to report errors, but their own staff is not always sure to whom they should report a mistake. They do not follow-up with a customer when it is corrected. As a result of that article, Lexis is working on improving their internal process. Westlaw has no official process but they suggest you email a reference attorney. They are very good about alerting you when the correction has been made.

  • Lexis and Westlaw also have disclaimers regarding the accuracy of their content.

    Below is Lexis disclaimer


    4.1 A Covered Party (as defined below) shall not be liable for any loss, injury, claim, liability, or damage of any kind resulting in any way from (a) any errors in or omissions from the Online Services or any Materials available or not included therein, (b) the unavailability or interruption of the Online Service or any features thereof or any Materials, (c) your or an Authorized User’s use of the Online Services or Materials, (d) the loss or corruption of any data or equipment in connection with the Online Services, (e) the content, accuracy, or completeness of Materials, all regardless of whether you received assistance in the use of the Online Service from a Covered Party, (f) any delay or failure in performance beyond the reasonable control of a Covered Party, or (g) any content retrieved from the Internet even if retrieved or linked to from within the Online Services.

  • Here is Westlaw's disclaimer

    Westlaw contains Data aggregated from multiple sources by, on behalf of, or as licensed by West to provide you with accurate and authoritative information concerning the subject matter covered. However, the nature of the Data and the collection processes limits the ability to independently verify and/or validate any of the Data and all Data is subject to change at any time without notice. Neither West nor its Providers warrant the comprehensiveness, completeness, accuracy or adequacy of the Data for any purpose. West, its Providers and their directors, employees, contractors, and agents disclaim all warranties, expressed or implied, as to any matter whatsoever and shall not be responsible for any loss or damage that may directly or indirectly arise as the result of the use of the Data contained in the Service.
    The Data was not necessarily prepared or compiled by persons licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. West is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice, and Data you obtain through the Service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. If you require legal or other expert advice, you should seek the services of a competent attorney or other professional.

  • The reality is West has been off-shoring more and more of its editorial functions — Read the post from this blog from September 2010

    The TwinCities Pioneer Press reports that Thomson Reuters is buying out another 130 workers ("publishing specialists") from the Rochester, New York, and Eagan, Minnesota offices. Since the Rochester office only had about 100 employees (AKA "publishing specialists"), it smells like the days of having editor staff in Rochester are numbered. What would really stink is if any of the Ohio folks that got moved to Rochester or Eagan this summer were on this current buy out list.

    I guess the writing is on the wall for any of the legal editor staff for Thomson Reuters. Your job will soon be sent to Hyderabad or Manila. Thomson Reuters is getting more and more comfortable sending skilled legal editor jobs to India and The Philippines. I hope everyone that depends upon the quality (and pays a premium for that service) is just as comfortable as the decision makers at Thomson Reuters are… because it seems that eventually we are all going to have to rely upon that quality.

  • I am not touching this either!!

  • I challenge all librarians to let the community know if they find an error in Google or any other legal research service free or paid. My experience with case law is that the error is not exclusive to one service. As librarians it is our job to know how each tool works and its strengths and weaknesses. I'd much rather say to a user, "Google is great but they don't do a good job of correcting an opinion when it has been recalled by a judge." than "Don't use it!" Or "Google is much better for news alerts for the Sunday editions of the New York Daily News and New York Post than Lexis or Westlaw. Wexis doesn't post the Sunday content until Tuesday. Google spiders crawl Daily News and New York Post regularly.

  • Chris Graesser

    Twenty five years ago, I think it was, I found an error in a Lexis opinion that they said was a typo from a transcriber in Taiwan who was just typing in what she saw with no knowledge of the English language. So the offshoring was happening a long time ago. But we have contracts and pay money to Wexis, so they are accountable for the content. Thousand of cases go through the Wexis hopper, and errors happen, but most of the time they don't. Would I recommend that associates use Google first for case law research? No.

    I pay Google nothing; they are not accountable for the content of their search results, so you have to apply additional verification tests. Today I found a great fifty state survey on Google, which luckily came from a relevant, reputable association. I agree that Google alerts may pick up a news source faster than a Wexis search that is set up to run once a week.

    I'd say there's a difference between a legal information specialist and a first year associate doing research on Google, and if I were a client, I'd like to know that my lawyer was using a database with a vetting process and cite checking tool.