Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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Just the Facts!

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Jun/Jul 2001) under the title, "Milking the Internet." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


29 November 2001, select updates as indicated on 17 October 2007. Lawyer X examines the spines of a set of books in the library. He angles his head sideways in an attempt to read the subheadings and section numbers. He selects one, opens it, and turns the pages to the index-referenced section.

Suddenly, he spies a blur of movement to the left. As the indistinct shape gradually reenters his peripheral vision, Lawyer X looks up to find fellow associate A. His heart always skips a beat in her presence.

A eyes him curiously, saying nothing, and then smiles.

"What?" X asks uncertainly. Thoughts of mismatched socks and other clothing mishaps race silently through his mind.

"You're reading a book," she answers simply.

Relieved that his appearance hadn't caused her stare, yet confused about her apparent interest in his study, X hesitates. "Ah, yeah. I'm trying to find a reference to a basic legal tenet."

She teases, "It's such a rare opportunity to see you...." She waves her arm in the general vicinity of the library. "Amongst the books," she explains.

Now he understands. He even feels an urge to defend himself, but it passes as A quickly changes the subject.

"If you have time, X, I could use some advice on a research project."


They walk to her office while A elaborates. "We're preparing to defend a veterinary medical malpractice claim. We need some factual information about Johne's disease in dairy cattle. We also need an expert."

Lawyer X discovers that the client, a provider of veterinary services, was sued recently for failing to treat, and prevent the spread of, Johne's disease in cows on a dairy farm. A's assignment involves factual research. She must learn more about the disease including what it is, what causes it, how it spreads, what testing procedures exist, how to treat it, and whether it can infect humans. She also must uncover the names of two or three potential expert witnesses.

Lawyer X first recommends that she pay a visit to the veterinary medicine library at a local university. Then A explains that the partner in charge wants the factual information later today. She has another two days to provide her with names of possible experts.

Abandoning the books once again, Lawyer X tells A to open her browser. While it loads, he explains that the Web sites of government agencies and related entities, trade associations, and professional organizations often make good starting points in factual research. In this case, he comments that finding a database of agricultural health and safety information or veterinary medicine literature also would be helpful

Lawyer X suggests that A initiate the research at the Web site of the Department of Agriculture. When she asks if he knows the URL, he teaches her a browser technique for connecting directly to certain sites. Entering the phrase, department of agriculture, in the browser address line accesses the federal agency's Web site.

A search box appears on the home page. X instructs A to enter "johne's disease" in quotations (For broader results, try johne.). The query retrieves several Web pages and documents including a fact sheet entitled "What Do I Need to Know About Johne's Disease in Beef Cattle?" The opening sentence allays any concern that the document may not apply to dairy cows. (17 October 2007. The Department removed this document from its Web site some time between 3 June and 10 October 2004. You may still review the text at the Internet Archive, although the images are not available.)

The lawyers learn that the disease is difficult to detect in its early stages. They read about the bacteria that cause it and testing procedures. They also discover how the disease spreads and how to contain it. The fact sheet helpfully ends with additional references.

One of these sends the lawyers to a Web site entitled "Johne's Information Center." Created by Dr. Michael T. Collins of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, the site provides additional factual information including the medical name of the disease -- Mycobacterium paratuberculosis, commonly abbreviated M. paratuberculosis - as well as various testing procedures and containment strategies. It also introduces the subject of its controversial ties to a similar human illness known as Crohn's disease.

Noting Dr. Collins as a possible contact for the expert witness research, Lawyer X suggests updating the factual information they have gathered. He expresses concern that the Web site was last updated two years ago (While true at the time this article appeared in Law Office Computing, Johne's Information Center has since received a major overhaul.). Likewise, the USDA fact sheet was written during August 1999.

They next connect to the Web site of the International Association for Paratuberculosis (IAP) via a link from the Johne's Information Center home page. Spying a membership directory, the lawyers momentarily divert from their factual research to explore potential expert witnesses. The directory enables searching by country, and then by state. They find two members in the city of their law office.

Back to the factual research, the lawyers follow the Research link from the IAP home page. It offers many topics including diagnostics, epidemiology & control, Crohn's disease, food safety, and more. Following the diagnostics link, they find several conference abstracts including some authored by the local experts they discovered. Still, the latest information appears to be two years old.

The formatting of the abstracts reminds Lawyer X of MEDLINE, a free National Library of Medicine database providing bibliographic information about medical literature. Had he not known about MEDLINE, he could have discovered it and other useful databases by consulting INFOMINE's Biological, Agricultural & Medical Sciences collection, Librarians' Index to the Internet, or Direct Search. (17 October 2007. Direct Search is no longer updated.)

To test MEDLINE for information on their topic, Lawyer X suggests first utilizing the MeSH browser. MeSH stands for medical subject headings. If the disease appears in the database's controlled vocabulary (index terms), then MEDLINE should make an excellent source for current information.

The MeSH browser finds the disease. Next, they query the database by entering the MeSH term, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis, in the search box. They click on Preview/Index, rather than the go button, so that they may manipulate the query to retrieve highly relevant articles published since 1999.

To do this, they cut the query from the search box and paste it into a search box lower on the page where they may select the phrase as "MeSH major topic." This strategy ensures retrieval where the disease appears as the major subject of an article. Clicking on the AND button moves the query back to the top search box. The query now contains the MeSH qualifier. Again, they click the Preview button.

Now the lawyers learn the database contains 228 citations to articles that discuss the disease in some detail. To update their research, they select Publication Date from the lower search box and add a restriction for retrieving articles published during 2000 or 2001. The final query looks like this:

Mycobacterium paratuberculosis[MeSH Major Topic] AND (2000[Publication Date] OR 2001[Publication Date])

It reduces the number of citations to sixteen. Lawyer X suggests A now enlist a librarian's help in retrieving the full-text of the articles.

Lawyer X picks up his pace to catch up with A as she leaves the building.

"How did it go with the partner?" he asks now walking beside her.

"Oh, the Johne's disease research," she remembers with a smile. "She seemed happy with the results. In fact," A continues teasingly, "she said if I'm not careful, I could end up a research geek like you!"

"Very funny," grumbles X.


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Created: 29 November 2001
Revised: 17 October 2007 (as indicated in the text)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/factual_research.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com