Internet Research: Guarding Against Misinformation
by Cookie Lewis
(County Bar Update, May 2003, Vol. 23, No. 5)

Internet Research: Guarding Against Misinformation

By Cookie Lewis, M.S.L.S., member, Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Lewis is the founder of Infomania, which provides online and traditional legal and business research, due diligence, law library audits, and database contract negotiation for law firms. She can be reached at mailto:infomania@usa.net or at (818) 788-8528. The opinions expressed are her own.

These days more and more law firms rely on the Internet for research as much as or more than the fee-based legal, business, or public record databases to cut costs to their clients. It is crucial that attorneys understand how misinformation is inherent on the Internet and learn the techniques that good researchers use to insure data gleaned from the Internet is accurate and timely. Listed below are some helpful tips to evaluate data from the Internet and to sharpen your research skills. Additionally, the tips below can be used help analyze and defeat the opposition’s research conclusions at deposition or at trial.

Authority. The most important quality to look for in Internet data is the authority or integrity of the data. There should be contact information for the author/producer. Follow up with questions concerning the information, other sources, and methodology, or ask about conflicting conclusions from other sources of information. Are there links to a page listing professional credentials or affiliations? Is the organization or association recognized in the field for which you are seeking information? Check archives of online lists, databases, or traditional sources to find other works or articles by the author. If you are looking at a news Web page, is there a non-Web equivalent version of this material that would provide a way of verifying its legitimacy?

Accuracy. How reliable and error-free is the information? Are sources for facts listed with bibliographic citations enabling verification from another source? Do editors check for logic, reasoning, or outright error? Charts or graphs containing statistical data should indicate the source of the data or whether the data is an author’s original research.

Objectivity. Is information provided as a public service or directed at a specific audience? The author’s biases should be clearly stated on the home page. Is the company’s motivation clear on its business/marketing Web page? A news Web page should clearly label editorials or opinion pieces.

Coverage. Coverage is an important consideration when using data and information from the Internet. Is there a print equivalent of the Web page, and if so, is there a clear indication whether the entire work is available on the Internet or only part of it? Is there a link to an informational page describing the coverage of a source? LexisNexis, Westlaw, and other commercial databases list the scope of coverage for each file selected. Fill in data from commercial online sources or traditional research sources for a full scope of information.

Currentness. Look for the date on the page to indicate when the page was placed on the Internet and last updated. For a news Web page, is there a link that describes how frequently material is updated or an indication of what edition of the paper the page belongs to?

Verify, Verify, Verify. The Internet is only one source of information, and not all associations, organizations, or government agencies put all of their information on their Web site. Besides information found on a Web site, ascertain whether more data exists such as an updated work or a report that became part of another report for another agency.

Use your law firm librarian or reference librarians at the L.A. County Law Library, L.A. Public Library, or specialized libraries at local universities to assist in verification of facts and statistics from the Internet and traditional research sources, and you have the potential to retrieve the accurate, compelling information you need to make or break your case.

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