Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Boolean Still Better Than Natural Language Searching

I love this post by Joshua Auriemma about legal research on the databases (in particular WestlawNext). I first saw the post mentioned on Law Librarians, and it's about a topic that I am rather passionate about, so I thought I would re-post here.

Auriemma discusses the difference in legal research when using boolean searching (terms and connectors) versus natural language in WestlawNext.

"I often wonder whether the Googleification of legal research isn’t a terrible thing for the profession (at least in this stage of the technology’s development). In law school, I was a master of Boolean searching. I thought about my research question, figured out which words probably appeared closest to other words, and crafted a narrow and specific search. Somehow, when I became an appellate attorney and had access to WestlawNext through my firm, all of that training went out the window. I got into the habit of assuming the algorithm was better than I was at crafting a search, but the truth is that right now, they’re not. Consider this: if a natural language search was as effective as a keyword search, it would be superfluous to pay an attorney for legal research."

This is true of most law students today. We (the law librarians) take the time to teach the research process using boolean searching because it is still the most precise way to search -- thus saving time and money. With boolean searching, the researcher has control over what the database retrieves instead of leaving it up to the database's algorithm to determine what is useful. But this generation of law students is used to natural language searching on Google, so it is hard to get them to understand the benefits of boolean searching on the databases.

As Auriemma put it, they're putting a lot of stock into an algorithm they can't see -- meaning we do not know why certain results show up with natural language because the algorithms are not made public.

He goes on to say "that as it stands right now natural language searching is not a replacement for a well-crafted Boolean search. And that’s a disconcerting revelation because out of my previous three law clerks, not a single one was well-versed in Boolean searching."

As a legal research expert, I still only use natural language if my boolean searching does not retrieve the results that I am looking for, which doesn't happen very often. When law students come and ask complex reference questions, they often think it is magic that I am able to retrieve relevant results so quickly with boolean searching when they have spent hours trying to sift through natural language results. It's not magic, it just takes practice.

For more information on boolean searching, Auriemma will teach an introduction to Boolean searching webinar for Fastcase about once a month (to start again in January). If you’re interested in picking up the basics, like Fastcase's Facebook page so that you are the first to know the dates for the 2014 year.

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