Casual readers of this blog may assume that my attacks on Lexis Advance are based on some type of animosity I have against LexisNexis or because I am a West stooge, but regular readers of this blog will know that I am routinely critical of Lexis Advance because of my affinity for lexis.com. If Lexis Advance is going to replace lexis.com, then I am going to do everything in my power to ensure that Lexis Advance is as capable of performing the types of research tasks that lexis.com makes possible. Unlike Barney Stinson, I don't believe that "new is always better", and I intend to fight against inefficient and expensive "change for the sake of change".
So why haven't I attacked WestlawNext as vehemently? Well, there's two reasons for my relative silence regarding that product. First of all, my interest in and experience with lexis.com greatly exceeds my interest in and experience with Westlaw. I am not a fan of Westlaw and only use it when I absolutely have to. Accordingly, although I know Westlaw well enough to be able to help law students navigate its user-unfriendly interface and construct searches using its limited Fields and its frustrating search syntax, I don't know it as well as I know lexis.com. In turn, because I'm not as familiar with the intracacies of Westlaw, I may not be as aware of the less-obvious differences between Westlaw and WestlawNext. Furthermore, since I'm not a fan of Westlaw, I'm not as invested in whether or not it gets replaced by another product, regardless of that product's comparative quality.
But the second, more germane, reason I haven't provided much criticism of WestlawNext is because I don't need to: Everyone else is already doing it! Despite the initial flush of mostly glowing reviews by bloggers after the launch of WestlawNext, the first serious look at the product was provided by Ronald E. Wheeler in his excellent article "Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything? The Implications of WestlawNext on Legal Research", 2011 Law Libr. J. 23, 103 Law Libr. J. 359 (2011). Since then, people have been taking a closer look at WestlawNext and have been more open about expressing their concerns. In fact, two very interesting (and, I believe, important) examinations of WestlawNext came to my attention in just the last few weeks.
Taking Up the Guantlet
The first examination comes from Lee Peoples, the Law Library Director at the Oklahoma City University School of Law. His recent work, "Testing the Limits of WestlawNext", 31 Legal Reference Servs. Q. 125 (2012), available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0270319X.2012.682928, is in response to Prof. Wheeler's call for more research on WestlawNext and reports on the results of a study carried out by Prof. Peoples in conjunction with Prof. Wheeler. And the findings are illuminating! [And this is where the good news for Lexis Advance comes in.]
Responsiveness to Customer Input
Prof. Peoples points out that the marketing materials about WestlawNext and its WestSearch search engine are confusing because, although Boolean searching is permitted, it "is not as simple as the marketing materials make it sound" (id. at 131). After explaining the confusing aspects in detail, Prof. Peoples then goes on to state that "[d]espite repeated requests from users for WestlawNext to recognize all basic terms and connectors commands in the basic search field, Thomson Reuters has not taken action" (id. at 132, emphasis added). Hmmm... Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but if I remember correctly, after several people (this blogger included) complained about lexis.com connectors not being available for use in Lexis Advance, LexisNexis responded to that criticism by making lexis.com connectors available in Lexis Advance! Imagine that: A company that actually listens to its customers! [Well, some of the time at least.] It seems like it should be an easy fix for WestlawNext; it apparently was for Lexis Advance!
In his article, Prof. Peoples offers several other criticisms of WestlawNext and backs up his contentions with the results from the underlying study. He also offers up some advice for academic law librarian on the role we can play in mitigating the problems inherent in WestlawNext. For all those reasons, it is definitely worth the read.
But I want to focus on one particular problem that he address: The impact the pricing structure of WestlawNext has on the quality of the research. Prof. Peoples correctly points out that, "[b]y charging users additional fees each time they click on a document to read it, WestlawNext discourages researchers from freely opening and reading documents returned in search results" (id. at 135, emphasis added). As a result, WestlawNext's pricing structure "encourages researchers to run fewer searches, to open fewer documents, and to make snap decisions about the relevance of a source after viewing only a citation or brief preview of the source" (id. at 137).
Think he's just being alarmist? This brings us to the second examination of WestlawNext that was recently brought to my attention. Emily Marcum, a Law Librarian with the Alabama firm of Lightfoot, Franklin & White, LLC, posted an interesting abstract to SSRN for a potentially forthcoming piece entitled "The Quest for Client Savings in Online Research: WestlawNext V. Westlaw Classic". The abstract explains that searching on WestlawNext costs anywhere from two to four times as much as comparable searching on "classic" Westlaw! Indeed, the pricing contrast was so shocking that the planned comparison was cut dramatically short! Accordingly, it appears that Prof. Peoples is correct when he states that "[t]he pricing structure of WestlawNext could have a chilling effect on the thoroughness and completeness of research conducted using WestlawNext" (id. at 135).
Of course, Lexis Advance has a similar pricing structure, so it's not all good news for them, but at least WestlawNext is taking some beatings as well! But even here, Lexis Advance can take some solace: According to Prof. Peoples, WestlawNext charges a $60-per-search fee that "applies on top of any existing underlying WestlawNext subscription charges" (id. at 135). Since all searches are supposedly currently part of the Lexis Advance subscription, they've got a leg up on WestlawNext here as well.
As both products improve in quality, I am hopeful that more people will begin addressing these pricing structures. I hope the firms don't roll over and think they have no power to force both companies to change back to the old charge-per-search structure rather than sticking with the current charge-per-view paradigm. That would be a shame.
I can't wait to hear the discussions in Boston at AALL!