Lies we tell ourselves about research (and one way of getting to the truth)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that “students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.”  This is not just true of students – I believe many of us, both professionals information-finders and amateurs, think we are very good at finding information.  We may well be right in most cases, but in most cases we also may be looking for things that are very easy to find.  And as we all know, there are many ways for pieces of information to hide.

You can have information that hides in plain sight – the old saw about how a search for “Turkey” is just as likely to bring up recipes as it is travel guides is a true one.  Similarly, we may have many names for the same concept: “fair value accounting” is also commonly called “mark-to-market accounting.”  A search for only one of these terms may miss some very valuable information.

This is where I insert a plea for indexes and other finding aids.  “Targeted full-text search” sounds really, really good until you come up against a term like “securities fraud.”  It is a very useful descriptive term in its own right; however, it is also maddeningly general.  What sort of securities fraud are you talking about?  Do you even know?  How do you find out?  Well, one way is certainly to walk down the tried and true legal research method of consulting a secondary source like a treatise, a hornbook, an encyclopedia, or a nutshell.

Another way of approaching the search process is to consult the index of a publication (if there is one – unfortunately, they have been deemed expendable by many in the era of full text).  Now, if you have consulted my “About” page, you may say, “Oh – but you would say that: you work as an index editor!”  And yes, I do.  But I also used to use this trick as a law student, many years before I even knew what an index editor was.

When you look at an index, you are not looking at a haphazard assortment of keywords.  Usually you are looking at a selected set of meaningfully distinguished, specific terms set out in an organized way: a hierarchical map of the work in question.  And if there are two terms that mean the same thing, you will encounter a see instruction (e.g. “mark-to-market accounting, see fair value accounting”).

The clues dropped by an index can thereby increase the efficiency of a free-text search.  You can scan down the index entries for “securities fraud” and see the various types of fraud that an ingenious fraudster can commit – perhaps those would be more specific, fruitful terms for you to use in your search.  You can also get a sense of what alternate terms for your area of interest might be useful.

How often do the search terms we use initially really do the job?  Well, as in any enterprise, that depends.  But looking at an index is one way of helping to make the search process a targeted, fruitful endeavor.

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