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FCIL Newsletter/May 1998
v. 12, no. 3


Top Ten Comments on Using the Internet for International Research

The following "Top Ten" list summarizes comments made by FCIL SIS members Gail Partin and Anne Burnett during a program of the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law (ASIL), on April 3, 1998. FCIL SIS members Marci Hoffman and Jill Watson also participated in the program, and numerous FCIL SIS members attended and contributed tremendously to the exchange of ideas regarding the program's theme: "The Challenge of Electronic Resources for International Legal Research."

#10 Seek and Ye Shall Find...Maybe! - search engines, browsing, serendipity

Those of us who use online commercial databases such as Lexis and Westlaw are often frustrated by the inability to run complex boolean searches of the Web using search engines. A recent CNN story reported that there are over 300 million Web sites, and that even a good search on a good engine will only retrieve 1/3 of the relevant sites. So, even with a good search engine, used efficiently, you still need to be creative and flexible and rely upon serendipity to find materials on the Web.

#9 Black Holes in Cyberspace - gaps on the Web

Sometimes we have to burst the bubble of an enthusiastic student or faculty member who believes that everything is on the Web. Many times, the Web just does not provide.

#8 Let's Get Organized!

Sometimes, gaps are not easily discerned because of the Web's unstructured nature: Web directories, such as Yahoo, have attempted to provide subject arrangement, but they include only a fraction of Web resources. There has been much discussion of cataloging the Web, but the informal and transient nature of the resources makes updating a nightmare.

Related to this is #7 Lots of Needles in a Haystack

The distribution of all these pieces of information to millions of locations around the globe rather than being collected in a few key libraries can be viewed as both a plus and a minus. Now, instead of having to call somebody at the UN or Amnesty International to ask for a document, and asking these folks to spend their time copying or faxing or mailing, one might find and print these documents from the Web in a matter of minutes. So, the storage and distribution responsibilities are disseminated over a larger group of people. Of course, it still might be more efficient to just pick up the phone and ask!

#6 Location, Location, Location - the peripatetic Web site

So, you've discovered a great site containing tons of useful materials, and you've either bookmarked it or added it to your collection of links. The next day you click on the link with great confidence, only to discover that the site has moved. If you're lucky, you'll be automatically forwarded to the new location or at least provided with the new URL. Or you may end up searching for the site all over again. All of these options cost the researcher time.

#5 Here Today...Gone Tomorrow

Web sites, especially the good noes, seem to drop out of cyberspace altogether! Or they are "under construction" and not accessible permanently. So, what will or will not be available fifteen years from now?

#4 Is the Internet Really A Free Lunch?

There are cost factors to consider... Some are obvious and direct such as the growing number of sites beginning to charge fees: -flat fees for membership, or -subscriptions, or -per document charges, or -per search fees. Even when the site is free, there are indirect costs: -hardware -software, such as browsers, plug-ins, and user training -communication costs, such as internet service providers (ISP) And finally, there is still the cost of the researcher's time, which can be considerable given the relative disorganization of web-based information.

#3 You Get What You Pay for...

The web is like a wild frontier town. There is virtually no quality control or accountability. It often requires the vigilance and persistence of an investigative reporter or detective to discover the owner of a web site or what their true agenda is. So, although we may get a site for free, we cannot be assured of the quality, reliability and accuracy of the information included there.

#2 Are We Shooting for the Moon? - heightened expectation levels

The Web can be an especially powerful medium for quick and relatively inexpensive access to vast quantities of research information for even the most remote areas of the world. It levels the playing field, so to speak. But right now, and especially with foreign & international law, there is much that is still unavailable electronically -- and may never be available electronically. Unfortunately, researchers are starting to expect everything to be "on the Web." This can lead to dangerous conclusions by the uninformed -- "if its not there, the information must not exist!" The mere existence of the Internet seems to stifle full and complete research.

#1 Jump start with ASIL & the ERG

Web researchers are in desperate need of guidance and direction, as evidenced by comments made during several programs at ASIL's annual meeting. The ERG and ASIL are perfectly poised to fill that void...as a jump start research tool ( a place to start) ....as a self-directed Internet guide (a place to learn) ....as a quick reference source (to locate a discreet piece of information) Perhaps the ERG's best contribution is that it is particularly well-suited for instructional use. Access the ERG at http://www.asil.org/resource/Home.htm.


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