As legal research alternatives start to proliferate the landscape and the Law.gov movement continues to gain steam, the question arises regarding accuracy, currency and reliability. This issue was highlighted by Erika Wayne over at Legal Research Plus earlier this year. Although this isn’t a new issue and didn’t originate with the Internet, it is one that we all take very seriously.
No publisher, in either print or online, is perfect. We are all human, and thus what we produce has the potential to be flawed, BUT, when someone is relying on a procedural rule (as highlighted in Erika’s post), what responsibility does the publisher (or site host) have to make sure that the content is accurate and current, and not just a direct feed or data dump from another site? Does the answer change depending on whether or not the content is free, low-cost or expensive? Government or privately published?
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, this is a part of the (expensive) service that you get with Lexis and Westlaw. In theory, you don’t have to worry. I’m not saying that these publishers don’t occasionally produce products with errors, but they take accuracy and reliability very seriously, and they pay a lot of people to safeguard against excessive errors, make corrections and make sure that he most current content is available. Hence, many legal professionals view these products as irreplaceable.
What about a low-cost options? In Erika’s example, she found that Fastcase and Casemaker both had the current rule, but Bloomberg Law did not. Free sites? This entire post originated with Cornell’s LII and the fact that it had the wrong version, which they source from a government site. In all fairness, the Rule was accurate to the currency date at the top of the page: 2007. However, we all know that no one is going to stop and look for that. As Erika asks, should there be a disclaimer on these sites that is easier to see? What about print? In all likelihood, the newest version of any Court Rules pamphlet would have been consulted, which would contain the current version.
As I mentioned above, this isn’t a new problem, and when you think about it, has been around since John B. West published his first reporter. However, it has been exacerbated with all of the options available to legal researchers, and their subsequent lack of understanding regarding accuracy, currency and reliability. In my opinion, it just heightens the need for law librarians to continue to educate their users, as in “all things old are new again.”