Every law school student knows “shepardizing.” It is the process by which one learns how and in what ways to research a legal case that may have been affected by subsequent cases. Shepardizing is a critical process in a legal system based on precedent. Stare decisis notwithstanding, one must know the latest decision on any specific legal question to proceed to the next. In the old days, it was done by hand and rather laborious, requiring not only denoting a case, but also reading those subsequent cases to evaluate the nuances of “modified,” “distinguished,” or even “overruled.” I was in law school during the transition to digitized process. In one of my first jobs as a lawyer, the attorney who gave me the assignment thought me brilliant because I came back within 20 minutes with the up-to-date case that significantly modified the one he asked me to research. His opinion shifted when I explained the automated West Law program that did all the work!
Francine Prose’s piece in the New York Times “How Have Google and YouTube Changed the Way You Work?” made me think of that legal research process.
A fiction author of some note, Francine Prose observes how frequently she is introduced with the mistakes that are embedded in a Wikipedia page about her. With all the knowledge that search engines integrate, some form of updating information, or at least denoting links with metadata that contextualizes it, shouldn’t be too difficult to create.
I expect that some faculty and research librarians may take that notion to task. One faculty member I know discovered mass academic integrity violation when a homework assignment came back from over 200 of her students with the same mistaken chemical in it, because it was a mistake in her instructor’s manual that was posted on-line! More to the point, information literacy 101 instructs students not to accept the first link in a search, to test for validity, to evaluate the source, and to do a researcher’s version of shepardizing. In other words, to dive deeper exploring subsequent research.
Digitalliteracy.cornell.edu is a go-to site for faculty and students to understand on-line research; one among many such sites. That work is not in conflict with the thought that search engines shift to some form of automated updating of links. Users, especially computer scientists, research faculty, and reference librarians, should already be thinking about how this metadata should operate. Waiting for Google or Bing or any profit-driven search company to meet the needs of our academic community is not a prudent plan. But serving academia is not the principal point. It is that serving the academic community will also serve the public. Responsible “shepardizing” helps citizens as well as students because it prizes transparent, objective, valid and sometimes even peer reviewed or tested information. And that direction shapes user experience of the Internet.
Information literacy for the public is another area in which higher education could exercise proactive leadership. The rules of academic research and integrity speak to the values of a democratic republic. And no other sector of U.S., or global, society is in a better place to make this contribution in the name of public service than our colleges and universities. Moreover, the process of integrating the underlying values of academic scholars and scholarship with those companies instrumental in shaping “the Internet” is precisely the kind of a propitious collaboration that upholds the better angels of the cyberspace.