Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rocky Mountain, Not So High!

Since at least the beginning of October, readership of the annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation Special Institute (RMMLF-INST) has likely skyrocketed. Is the sudden spike due to increased public concern about fracking, or a boom in the oil & gas law employment sector? Actually, it's a little more technical than that.

An undetermined coding issue in Westlaw Classic's Journals & Law Reviews database (a.k.a. JLR) has given a strange prominence to Terms & Connectors search results from the Mineral Law Foundation publication. For almost the last two months, the top results for JLR searches in Westlaw Classic are dominated by all available matches in reverse-chronological order from RMMLF-INST, even if more recent articles which match the search parameters are available within other publications. (Other titles which now seem to float all of their matching articles randomly to the top of Westlaw Classic search results, regardless of the user's selected "sort by date" preference, include the Criminal Law Bulletin and Annual Survey of Bankruptcy Law.) See the illustration below for an example – princess & regalia returns an unlikely 1974 RMMLF-INST result at the top of the date sort, before listing more recent hits from other publications in reverse-chronological order.

Illustration: Westlaw Classic JLR erroneous date display

It's undoubtedly amusing to try and find search examples which are ridiculous enough to elude these renegade results (for the record, princess & pea works fine, since it matched nothing in the publications which are currently forcing their way to the top). But the persistence of this error serves as a good reminder to the researcher that result lists must always be carefully and critically assessed. As long as this error continues, users of Westlaw Classic should be aware that a broader search with a higher number of results could mean that the most current articles from other publications don't appear until page 2 of the result list – or even later.

What to do until the Westlaw technicians fix the error in Westlaw Classic's JLR database? The Goodson Blogson has a few tips:
  • Consider ways to tighten your search requirements. Broad journal article searches, with terms connected by "AND," are far more likely to match historical results in these "floater" publications. Requiring terms to appear in the same sentence (/s) or same paragraph (/p) will help narrow your search and eliminate some of these unwanted results.
  • If you are overwhelmed by older articles and are most interested in the latest publications, consider including a date restriction from the drop-down box in order to help filter out those historical results (e.g. "Last 3 years" or even "Last 10 years").
  • Duke Law School's Westlaw representative also reports that this error does not occur in the Law Reviews & Journals database within WestlawNext. There is an option to sort results by date, and a hidden feature which allows users to force a Classic-style Terms & Connectors query by typing "adv:" or "advanced:" before your search terms.
  • Remember that there are also alternatives to searching legal articles in the Law Reviews &Journals database within LexisNexis as well as the Duke University database LegalTrac. Each works slightly differently (for example, a "Keyword" search in LegalTrac does not search the full text of available articles; users must select "Entire Document" in order to search the full text). For help with using any of these resources to search for law review and journal articles, be sure to Ask a Librarian.

Users are encouraged to continue reporting the problem with Westlaw Classic JLR by clicking the "Help" link at the bottom of the screen, then choosing the Feedback tab. Incidentally, if you'd like to read the Proceedings of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation Annual Institute the old-fashioned way, the library’s collection of volumes back to 1955 can be found at KF1819.A2 R63. Who knows? You might even miss it when the error is fixed.