Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google Scholar Adds Free Legal Content

The blogosphere was abuzz this morning about Google Scholar’s quiet addition of federal case law, state case law, and legal journal articles to its already-large full-text index of academic journal literature. Official details remain sketchy, but it appears that the legal content includes Supreme Court case law back to volume 1 of the U.S. Reports, federal appellate cases back to the 1920s, and state cases back to the 1950s. Law journal literature is also included.

So you think Lexis and Westlaw are now yesterday’s news? Well, not so fast. Gone is the precision searching of Terms & Connectors-- search results are closer to Natural Language, and in some cases maybe not even that sophisticated. There also seems little opportunity to refine search results which are too broad, making Google Scholar perhaps better suited to retrieving known citations than attempting to retrieve a useful list of all the relevant cases on a particular topic.

Like much of the social science literature indexed through Google Scholar, researchers may hit a “pay wall” when trying to retrieve the full text of articles. Let’s say you were searching for Brandeis and Warren’s seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article, “The Right to Privacy.” Your search results present a few options. The first result links to “heinonlinebackup.com”—part of the HeinOnline database to which Duke subscribes. If you are searching Google Scholar on a university computer, no problem—the database will recognize you as a HeinOnline subscriber and give you a PDF of the article straight from the pages of the law review. But if you are researching from off-campus, you will most likely see a screen asking for a password, since HeinOnline (and other pay databases) will not recognize your computer as being affiliated with Duke University. Other Scholar results link to free versions of the Brandeis article posted around the web, but they are not page-image scans like HeinOnline’s, and may not provide accurate star paging. Caveat lector.

(Side note: if you ever receive prompts to pay for any article through a database, try retrieving the journal title through the libraries’ Online Full-Text Journals list; you might also check the libraries' catalog to see if print copies are available. Linking to databases through the libraries’ website ensures that you will be recognized as a Duke user, and you should receive access to any content to which the university subscribes.)

What seems most useful about the legal journal index, then, is the “Cited By” feature, a cruder version of Shepard’s and KeyCite which links articles and cases to later articles/cases which cited the earlier publications. However, the “Cited By” results appear to be displayed only by the later documents’ own influence (i.e., the most-cited results themselves appear at the top). This makes sorting through subsequent citations difficult for influential documents like Brandeis (cited nearly 4000 times).

Case law results include “star paging”, hyperlinks to other cases which are cited in the opinion, and a “How Cited” tab which works similarly to the “Cited by” feature for articles. Attempting to retrieve cases on a particular topic can get overwhelming—use the Advanced Scholar Search to narrow your jurisdictions if you are only interested in a particular state.

Google is undoubtedly working to refine the search process, so comparison-shop your searches as the new feature develops. For additional sources of free case law, check out the library's guide to Legal Research on the Web, which will be updated to include Google Scholar once the scope of the content becomes clearer.

For extensive discussion of Google Scholar’s new legal search features and content, check out these blog posts: