C1: Searching Legal Opinions: The Google Scholar Approach

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At the program “Searching Legal Opinions: The Google Scholar Approach,” Michelle Wu, Director of the Law Library and Professor of Law at Georgetown Law, introduced Dr. Anurag Acharya, one of the two creators of Google Scholar, to a near capacity crowd. There was a lot of interest in how to use Google Scholar to find legal information.

When I think of Google, I think of computers and algorithms. Thus my surprise at the passion that Dr. Acharya had for legal information access. He exclaimed that the goal of the project was that "everyone should be able to find and read the laws that govern them. Everyone."

This goal requires the service to be free. He has a team of only six people, and relies on algorithms to do the bulk of the work. This has required finding ways to deal with some tricky issues, like the difference between "in New York" as a place versus "in New York" as a reference to a case.

He demonstrated many different searches on Google Scholar. In every search, cases that you would expect to come up as the most relevant for a search did, like Terry v. Ohio for police stop. You can also search specifically for a citation. Dr. Acharya also pointed to usability features, like making pages with footnotes as easy to read as possible.

The system is designed to be usable by non-lawyers, like Dr. Acharya, but to have features for more expert users too. While it does not have an editor-produced citator, for instance, it does have several citation analysis functions for finding out cases that cited to a given case, and how extensively. Last year Google surveyed users to find out what they wanted, and has been tweaking the product based on those results. Overall, I was impressed by his desire to make improvements for the greatest number of users, even when it might mean that some expert users, a minority of the products audience, will be less than satisfied.

Dr. Acharya took questions from the audience after his presentation. He addressed issues such as Google Scholars coverage, saying that it has coverage of much state material since 1950, and even older federal material. Unfortunately, he would not comment on the source of their primary material, but did say that Google buys it. When asked about expanding coverage to statutes, he pointed out the difficulty in figuring out how to treat citations to statutes in older cases about now-amended laws. He tried to deflect this issue by pointing out that he believed that statutes were generally available online from other sources. He also noted the difficulty of putting material from sources like Google Books into Google Scholar, given the high accuracy needs of people using legal opinions.

This presentation was worth attending as both as a practical refresher on how Google Scholar works and for insight as to the thinking behind a product that is being used by legal researchers of all levels more and more. That demonstration will lose some value without being able to see what he is doing with Google Scholar while he talks, but would still be worth any law librarians time.

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