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

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Strategies for Beginning Researchers

Question: A research trainer in the U.K. writes: "I have found some people do not trust, or cannot conduct, Web-based research primarily because they do not know where to look for what they need. They "google," but don't go beyond the keyword search. If they find a primary source, it is a matter of luck, rather than one of research strategy." She hopes readers of TVC Alert will share suggestions regarding the following:

1. What strategies would help a first time researcher, or a student (or a reluctant judge), find primary sources using the Web, especially when the researcher does not know who or what has the documents he needs?

2. Is Web-based research effective when a beginning researcher wants to locate the archives of, or the entity responsible for, a primary source?

Answer: Responses come from Chris Pierre, an analyst with Intelysis Corp., Kathleen Fischer, an information consultant with Northwestern Mutual and me.

Chris Pierre: I have a few suggestions. First, if you know of a trusted source, such as a government agency or an academic institution, go to its Web site. For example, connect to the Harvard Law Library's Web site and search for your subject. Matches should refer you to resources for continuing your research.

Second, I find that sometimes it helps to enter my search terms as if they were a phrase appearing in a magazine. For example, if your reluctant judge is looking for Toronto crime statistics, he might enter "crime statistics in Toronto" in quotes. This search on Google produced a local university Web page, which referred me to a useful resource.

Another strategy resembles the game of Jeopardy. Make the search statement a question. Matching documents often contain headings that consist of questions.

Kathleen Fischer: First of all, ask a librarian or other information professional for help. If research were as simple as following a few rules or a checklist, everyone would be an effective researcher. One would never ask for a few tips on designing a building, or a few tips on structuring a contract--they would consult an architect or an attorney. Research is complex and requires knowledge, skill and experience.

Having said that, the beginning researcher should be made aware of the "hidden web"--the vast amount of content not accessible by search engines. There are many good primers and guides to navigating the hidden web (and those guides can be found using search engines!)

Editor: The answer to your question is more worthy of a book than the space provided here. As Kathleen (above) points out, the research process is a complex one. The fact that it's an art, and not a science, makes it more difficult--but not impossible--to teach.

At the risk of shamelessly promoting my work, I refer you to my recent book, Introduction to Online Legal, Regulatory & Intellectual Property Research by Thomson South-Western. The title's a handful and makes the book sound more like a text for law students. But the fact of the matter is, it's written for business people with little or no research or legal training. Chapter One contains 17 pages that address your question. Chapter Three presents several research scenarios that illustrate the strategies described in the first chapter. The book is available for sale directly from the publisher (see the link from our home page), as well as from Amazon.com.

Several articles and teaching Webs on The Virtual Chase also provide helpful suggestions for beginning researchers. You can borrow ideas and materials from the teaching Web, Teaching Internet Research Skills, or refer students to it. While we no longer update this resource, many of the strategies and suggestions still constitute good advice.

An entire section of The Virtual Chase consists of articles on research issues. Many were written for lawyers, but several--for example, "It's the Source That Matters!"--serve a more general audience.

Another section contains brief tips on how to conduct a specific research task. These focus primarily on legal and public records issues, but the strategies are analogous to other subject areas.

If your training involves evaluative issues (e.g., the importance of verifying sources), you may--with permission--use materials from the teaching Web, Evaluating the Quality of Information on the Internet.



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Created: 14 January 2005
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/ask_answer/primary_sources.html
Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, editor [at] virtualchase [dot] com