Friday, January 11, 2008

Head to Head Comparison: Westlaw's WebPlus with Cornell's Legal Research Engine

In November, 2007 I reported on Westlaw's WebPlus here at OOTJ. Reader Victoria Szymczak comments there,

I am wondering if the West web search engine might be part of the reason why they, and LX [Lexis], are not playing with Serials Solution and other services providing federated searching and the like. I understand there is some concern because they are not updating w/ ss as quickly as we would all like. I won't be surprised if we see a LX competitor to the West product. I think the West product is pretty good, but I think the Cornell legal research engine covers legal free web sites pretty good already.
Note to readers: I am informed that this very interesting alternative to WebPlus is from Cornell's law library, not from the Legal Information Insitute, which explains the difficulties I had with finding the search engine through LII. It's not there -- Cornell is separate from the LII.

I had difficulty locating the Legal Research Engine starting from the Legal Information Institute's home page, but then, Julie M. Jones, Research Attorney and Lecturer in Law and Editor, Legal Research Engines at Cornell Law Library posted to the Academic Law Libraries listserve with a link, which I included above. Ms. Jones reported,
... we've added a few new specialty search engines to help researchers find the best of the web quickly and easily. The original search to find authoritative legal research guides remains (NOTE: if you previously added this gadget to your google homepage, you will need to DELETE the former gadget and ADD it again due to technical issues. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you). We've added the new InSITE search, mentioned above, here, as well as a search that is limited to academic blawgs (plus a few extras) to help legal researchers find quality commentary quickly. As an added bonus, we've combined all three of these searches into a single engine: I want it all!

The web addresses for these pages remain the same, so if you have been kind enough to link to either InSITE [current awareness service] or the Legal Research Engine, no updating should be necessary. If you're interested in adding any of these search gadgets to your website, we can provide you with a link to do that, just ask.

We hope these new and improved features help and your constituents conduct research on the web.
Given the good performance of the Cornell Legal Research Engine, I wonder how much use the Westlaw version will get, if they begin charging. I had heard that Westlaw is trying to figure out how to charge for WebPlus, but I could not get Eagan confirmation on that. As I understand it, their problem is that the link is through the same server that you use for actual Westlaw searching, and they have to figure out how to charge at a different (lower) rate than for Westlaw searching. What they have had so far is a free beta test, where the search engine is learning from the searches and choices made by the users.

A brief test using the broad and ambiguous term "aliens" for a legal search on both engines had interesting results. WebPlus returned thousands of results, but the first 10 were not very helpful: asides in entries on political figures or genealogical studies about foreigners, and lots of entries about invasive species. The first 10 entries in the Cornell Legal Research Engine were much more on point. All 10 were centrally focused on statutes, court decisions or organizations dealing entirely with aliens as a legal concept -- immigration, alient tort claims act, illegal aliens.

This is a very inadequate comparison, but interesting and striking. I have not heard that Lexis is preparing a third entry in the legal web search engine. I do recall that the first AALL research grant was to a pair of computer science researchers in North Carolina trying to develop a legal search engine for the web. Librarians would love to see our students, young associates, and ourselves use a more legally focused search engine instead of the ubiquitous Google. But I don't know if even a very good search engine will wean our newer generations away from the Google habit!

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