Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Two Clicks to Better Results in WestlawNext

WestlawNext is a good legal information product. It has won awards from law librarians, and even more importantly, I generally find what I am looking for on it.1

The biggest change from Westlaw to WestlawNext is the big search bar on the top of the home screen. It tells you that you can enter “anything” and promises that it will return an answer. Unfortunately, it will also return plenty of results that are not the answer.

There are several ways to cut down on your non-relevant results. One, you can craft a really good search query. That can be hard, so let’s come back to that in a future post. Two, you can filter your results after you get them. These filters can cut out entire types of resources, or different jurisdictions, from your results. This is good, but the filtering interface can be a little slow. Also, why tempt yourself with so many results so early in your research? Too much choice can make decisions harder.

The best way to improve your results is by limiting your search's scope by selecting resources from the “Browse” area under the search box. In fact, just two clicks can narrow your search to the information sources that are most likely to be relevant, without focusing so narrowly as to exclude areas that might also have useful information.

What can you do in just two clicks? 
  • You can pick a specific state’s laws to search.
  • You can pick a type of source to focus on, such as statutes, cases, or secondary sources.
  • You can pick something in your favorites, and have a click left over!
For instance, from the WestlawNext home-page, in two clicks you can narrow your search to exclude everything but Massachusetts Secondary Sources.

Or, in just two clicks, you can be in Massachusetts State & Federal Cases. Granted, I may prefer three clicks, to get into either searching just federal or just state cases, but this requires a little more knowledge of a subject than you have when you start your search. (Especially if you didn’t start with a secondary source!)

For national secondary sources, two clicks will leave you searching either by type of source, or by a broad topic, like criminal law. While I wish WestlawNext didn’t mingle so many state resources on some of these topics, your initial results can be filtered effectively.

One thing I like about WestlawNext is that there are several ways to do the same thing. There is nothing you can do with just two clicks that you can’t do in other ways. However, as a quick rule of thumb, clicking twice is a great way to start your research.

1 This is not to say that it is a great tool for everything, or that it has perfect precision and recall. For more in-depth analysis of WestlawNext’s capabilities, I recommend Ronald E. Wheeler’s Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything? The Implications of WestlawNext on Legal Research, 103 Law. Lib. J. 359 (2011).

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