Ideas for Now: Authentication for legal blogs

by Jason Wilson on June 17, 2009

A recent post from the Legal Research Plus blog about the authenticity of state primary source material got me to thinking about the same problem for legal blogs. Namely, when I’m reading a blog discussing an aspect of law, can I trust that the authority cited within hasn’t been amended or overruled in some manner? The answer is “no,” I can’t because it’s my job to verify the accuracy of those sources.

But what if I had a tool to give me a quick peek? Better yet, what if my search results could tell me “this article contains authority that has been {amended, repealed, overruled, etc.}, so you might want to skip it, unless, of course, you’re doing historical research”?

In my post on legal blogs as educational modules, I briefly mention the problem of accuracy and authentication. There’s so much good information out there, but how much of it is reliable? If I wrote a blog post in 2005 about some court of appeals decision on an important legal matter is it still relevant in 2009? This is the problem with much of the legal content on the Tubes.

So here’s my idea for now: a Shepard’s or KeyCite browser plugin that provides me with a flag or star rating for the post I’m viewing. (Yes, I’m arguing for a Lexis or Westlaw service because overall, I’ve found their subsequent history services to be the most accurate available.) The service would take the flat (untagged) information from the post, determine whether there are problems with the cases, statutes, or other primary sources cited, and return an overall rating for the page. A post that gets a red flag or one star might give me pause, or at least might indicate that I’ve got some verification work ahead. Either way, I get a peek. And if I decide to read the post, it would be even better if the service could somehow highlight those sources within the post, so as I scrolled through I could see the affected areas.

A comment about authentication

If you aren’t paying attention to the debate on authentication standards, you should be. There was a terrific post recently on the Law Librarian Blog about perceptions of trustworthiness.  In it, Joe Hodnicki reminds us that neither Lexis nor Westlaw perform regular audits of their databases, yet we accept them as accurate. Perhaps that’s fine for now (although you might begin to question your sources after the Profs. Rudofsky & Susnov v. Thomson West matter is resolved), but what about all of the governmental and other non-Lexis, non-West, user-generated content out there? The stuff that other bloggentators say is the new disruption. There is no uniform authentication signature standard, no seal of approval, where the publisher of the information validates its authenticity and reliability. How do we fix this? I don’t have those answers, but folks like John Joergensen are writing about certification standards and digital signatures. Others, like Tom Bruce of LII, are also asking the questions. They are the ones you should be following.

Oh, in case you were wondering, primary source material material made available by individual state governments is “not sufficiently trustworthy” according to a 2007 AALL report here. So, be careful with what you rely on. And if you’re in Texas or practice Federal employment or IP law, buy our books. I can personally guarantee their authenticity and accuracy.

[Image Attribution whatnot.]

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