To The Google Scholar User: Buyer Beware

Image representing Google Scholar as depicted ...
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Here is a bit of common sense from real life example: when using Google Scholar for your legal research, use care in making sure that versions of a case match. Legal Writing Prof Blog has a post about an attorney preparing a brief for filing who noted a discrepancy in the footnote numbering between the official Wisconsin Reporter version of a case and the Google Scholar version. The Blog quotes the attorney’s findings as follows:

The source of the discrepancy quickly became apparent.  In the official version of the case (as in all official versions of Wisconsin cases), the filing of a petition for review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court gets noted in the caption with a footnote placed at the end of the name of the party that filed the petition.  The symbol for this footnote is a dagger, not a number.  Google Scholar, however, designates this footnote with a number (in this instance, the dagger became “1”) and renumbers the remaining footnotes accordingly.  Where there’s more than one footnote attached to the caption – e.g., Ellsworth v. Schelbrock, 229 Wis. 2d 542, 600 N.W.2d 247 (Ct. App. 1999) – Google Scholar shifts the footnote numbers even more:  in Ellsworth, the caption has two footnotes, so the numbered footnotes shifted by two as well, making footnote 1 in the official version into footnote 3 in the Google Scholar version.

My thinking on the proper role of Google Scholar is this: the greatest cost in using the paid databases is the time spent poking around looking for the main cases on a point of law. Once you have identified those cases, the costs of pulling them down out of the paid databases is relatively inexpensive. I see Google Scholar as an effective (but not sole) tool for the former task. When writing an appellate brief to any court, I would not feel the slightest bit comfortable relying on Google Scholar’s version. At that point, I would be pulling the actual cases from the paid databases. While these sources are far from infallible, they do have a longer track record with respect to accuracy, as well as complete citations and the ability to Keycite or Shepardize, a must for briefs to be filed in any court.

So there you have it. Use the free resources with your eyes wide open to their possible shortcomings, and you should not go far wrong.

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2 comments on “To The Google Scholar User: Buyer Beware

  1. Great thoughts. I haven't really used Google Scholar, but will certainly check it out. Because of these issues, I'm not sure that Fastcase and other non-Lexis or Westlaw databases will be put out of business until Google catches up to these intricacies.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Advocate's Studio » To The Google Scholar User: Buyer Beware -- Topsy.com

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