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-Spencer L. Simons, former Director, O'Quinn Law Library and Associate Professor of Law

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some First Thoughts on LALS (Part 3)

Today, I will conclude my critique of LexisNexis for Law Schools BETA (LALS). If you have not already read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I strongly recommend you take a moment to examine my comments there before continuing on with this Part. In this posting, I will identify a few additional problems with LALS and offer some concluding remarks.

Problem with Word Wheel

In Part 1, I mentioned that LALS offers a "Word Wheel" that suggests terms or citations as the user types in the search box, but I also mentioned that there was a problem with it. In order to explain this problem, I'll use the example provided by LexisNexis' marketing department: Let’s say you want to find information on "eminent domain", and you start to type it into the LALS search box. By the time you’ve typed in the fourth letter, the Word Wheel is already suggesting the search eminent domain, and hitting the Enter key will automatically place those search terms in the search box. And that’s the rub: It doesn’t place the phrase "eminent domain" in the search box; it places the terms "eminent" and "domain" in the search box. They are not enclosed in quotation marks, and there is only a space between them (which, if you'll remember from Part 2, is now [usually, see below] treated as an OR connector). Accordingly, if you take the time to go back and place the two words in quotation marks (i.e., "eminent domain") and search for the phrase, you'll get over 75,000 cases. But if you make no alterations and run the search exactly as suggested by the Word Wheel (which is what I believe LexisNexis clearly expects its users to do; more on this below), you'll retrieve over 130,000 cases because, technically, the system is looking for any cases with either the term "eminent" or the term "domain". Granted, due to its Relevancy algorithm, the first cases listed deal with "eminent domain", but that still seems like a major inefficiency to me. What if you select from the Word Wheel eminent domain proceeding, right of eminent domain, or easements through eminent domain (keeping in mind that "through" is not treated as a noise word in LALS)? If you don't take the extra step and place the words in quotation marks, you're going to get a lot of completely unhelpful results. Thanks for making searching easier and faster, LexisNexis!

[As an aside, take a look at Question 10 in LALS' Faculty FAQs. I'm pretty sure that whoever wrote the answer didn't understand the question. The same goes for Question 11. The answer to both questions, as I understand them, should clearly be "No", not "Yes".]

Problem with Search Syntax

As I discussed in Part 2, LALS generally treats a space as an OR connector. This is a dramatic change from the search syntax used by lexis.com, and is the same search syntax used by Westlaw. But there's a problem (or at least a frustrating inconsistency) with the LALS search syntax. Feel free to follow along at home:

In the initial LALS search box, type (without quotation marks) pet dog cat; we want to find documents dealing with pets (feel free to add other animals as you like). Clicking the search button will retrieve over 280,000 cases. Why? Because the system is looking for ANY of the terms: "pet" OR "dog" OR "cat". Now, let's go back to the initial search box (or you can use the search box that appears in the top left corner of the results screen; this is not a focus box) and add NEAR/10 attack to the end of the original search. If this was Westlaw (and it used the NEAR/n Connector), the system would now search for the term "attack" to appear within 10 words of either "pet", "dog", or "cat". However, in LALS, this search will retrieve zero results. Why? Because now that we've explicitly entered a Connector, the search syntax has reverted back to the lexis.com syntax: It is looking for "attack" to appear within 10 words of the phrase "pet dog cat", which, of course, does not exist in any case, statute, brief, etc. So, to remedy this, if you're going to use any Connectors, you've got to put in all appropriate Connectors: pet OR dog OR car NEAR/10 attack (which retrieves over 5,000 cases).

In other words, lexis.com users need to be prepared to use three different search syntaxes: One for lexis.com, a second for simple searches in LALS, and a third for LALS searches that are more than simple. Of course, if the developers had stuck with the syntax that lexis.com users are already familiar with, there wouldn't be a problem.

Correction/Clarification Regarding Folders and History on LALS

In Part 1, I briefly discussed the folder system that LALS employs and discussed LALS' extended History. However, I misstated the facts or was vague about the connection between these two features. Up to 500 searches and individual documents can be stored in the folders, and once stored, they remain accessible until deleted. But the term "accessible" is the catch. Since, under the new pricing paradigm utilized by LALS (and WestlawNext, see below), searches don't really incur charges, any search stored in the folders can be re-run free of charge at any time. Documents, or (as LexisNexis refers to them in their marketing materials) "purchased content", stored in the folders can be accessed without incurring additional charges only for the 90 days that it would be available through the History. After that, such items will still be listed in your folders, but viewing them again after that 90 days will require you to re-purchase them!

Shift in Pricing Paradigm

Just like West has done with WestlawNext, LexisNexis shifts the pricing paradigm for LALS. Previously, on both Westlaw and lexis.com, pricing was based on the search: generally, the larger the database, the higher the cost of the search. Although users may have had a problem with the actual price of a particular database (or the fact that a search that retrieved zero results still resulted in a search charge), no one had a problem with the logic behind such an arrangement. It was understood that searching all federal and state cases at once would cost more than searching just in a particular state's cases. And the understanding went both ways: LexisNexis understood that, with this paradigm, once you ran your search, you could spend as much time as you wanted examining the results (assuming you were using a transactional ID), which allowed for actual research. In Customer Support, we were encouraged to lead customers to the smallest database that would satisfy their needs, have them run one broad search, and teach them how to use lexis.com's Focus feature to sift through the results.

Now, in an obvious attempt to gouge their customers for as much as they can, both services are shifting the paradigm from search-based pricing to document-based pricing. The logic is that, since you're searching everything at once, basing the charge on the search would result in an unreasonably large number. But, they would have us believe, basing the charge on what you actually do with the results is much more reasonable. And that means charges are incurred just for looking at a document! This goes against everything both services have purposefully ingrained in the legal research community for decades! Both services will argue that, especially with regard to law schools, everyone will be on flat fee subscriptions, so you're not actually getting charged for looking at each document. But that misses the point! Are we expected to believe that, when renewal time comes around, they won't say "we've got to raise your price because, jeez, look at how many documents you looked at"?!

And, I believe, that explains why the search syntax has been changed in LALS. Knowing that professors and law students are likely to click into a large number of documents to see if they satisfy their research needs, what better way to generate revenue than to throw an inordinate number of documents at them! If LALS provided the capabilities to search with specificity that lexis.com currently employs, then you might find what you need after clicking into only a few documents. But if you have to sift through thousands of mostly meaningless results to find those few helpful documents, that increases the chances you'll click into more documents, thereby generating more charges. Genius!

According to the Judiciary Information Technology Fund Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2006, PACER brought in over $62 million, most of that at 8 cents a page! And most of that was generated by people who knew exactly what they were looking for, got in, grabbed it, and got out; PACER isn't usually thought of as a resource to go fishing in. Yet, LexisNexis and Westlaw are going to charge us anywhere from $13-265 just to look at a document. "Oh, you also want to print that document? Well, that's going to cost extra." How is that conducive to effective quality legal research?! If they're going to force this pricing paradigm shift on us, the least they can do is keep the pricing reasonable. If PACER can bring in that kind of money, considering it's limited clientele, information, and tools, then LexisNexis and Westlaw should be able to lower their charges and still bring in much more.

Disgruntled Former Employee?

After reading this series of posts, I can imagine some readers might be thinking, "He's just a disgruntled former employee." Am I? If by "disgruntled former employee" (DFE) you mean someone who hates a company because they were fired or who angrily left the job because of some dissatisfaction or sense of disrespect, then no, I am not a DFE. Yes, I am a former employee of LexisNexis (as mentioned in Part 1), but I left on good terms to pursue my MLIS. And yes, I am currently disgruntled, if by "disgruntled" you mean "displeased", "discontented", "disappointed", or "dismayed", but I am not a DFE. As I admitted in Part 1, I have a strong preference, perhaps even a fondness, for lexis.com. But I also have a fondness for quality legal research, and that, I believe, is what is fueling my animosity towards LALS (and WestlawNext for that matter).

That is not to say that these musings aren't influenced by other prejudices as well, namely my natural aversion to change-for-the-sake-of-change (mentioned in Part 1) and my abhorrence of marketing distortions (which, if you were paying attention, has been alluded to throughout this series).

Case in point: As mentioned in Part 2, LexisNexis claims that the Lexis Advance platform "is a response to our customers' research needs" and that "over 30,000 customer interactions drove the development of Lexis Advance" (see Faculty FAQs Q3). However, this clearly cannot be the case. I cannot believe that any current LexisNexis customer, assuming they have actually performed legal research before, would ask for Lexis Advance. In my estimation, since it is clearly not "a response to [LexisNexis'] customers' needs", at least one of the following five statements must be true: 1) 30,000 customer interactions didn't drive the development of this platform; 2) they didn't ask the right people; 3) they didn't ask the right questions; 4) they misunderstood the answers they were given; or, 5) they purposefully ignored the answers they were given and went with what they thought the higher-ups wanted (or, to put it another way, 30,000 customer interactions didn't drive the development).

How can I be sure that at least one of those five statements is true? Just look at the product! No professor or law librarian (of any type) worth their opinion could possibly support or endorse the use of this product as it currently stands. Moreover, it should be clear that LALS is currently just Lexis Advance for Solos rebranded, as if slapping a Mustang decal on a Ford Pinto is going to improve the quality of the car (sorry; imperfect analogy #3).

I have heard the claim that Lexis Advance is meant for new customers, but, as pointed out in Part 1, they are already planning on "retiring" lexis.com once the Lexis Advance platform has been rolled out to "all segments" (see Faculty FAQs Q2). If that happens, and these shortcomings remain a part of LALS, the consequences will be dire.

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