The following are important factors in the success and reliability of performing legal research on the internet.
Coverage & Primary vs. Secondary
- Primary material is more likely to be available via the WWW than secondary material. The U.S. federal government has especially made a point of trying to get official documents available online. It is also less expensive to publish electronically so many governments are moving toward online-only government publication policy.
- With the exception of archival projects, most legal information on the internet is available beginning in the mid-1990s.
- Secondary material is less likely to be online (for copyright, use, and cost issues) although journals are now often published in both paper and electronic format and there are a number of vendors that offer electronic books.
- Where electronic versions of secondary sources are less likely to be available online is between the cut-off date for materials in the public domain (i.e. not protected by copyright), varying by publication but generally in the 1920s and the recent electronic publication of materials by the publisher. Some archival collections of digitized secondary sources to exist, for example HeinOnline (available only to the University of Michigan Network) includes law reviews and journals and some journal publishers are now offering subscriptions to backfiles for individual journals.
- Remember that historical legal documents are important in American legal research because of the doctrine of stare decisis.
- Not everything is available via a Google search. Remember that legal research requires the use of not only the internet but also print resources and electronic resources like Lexis and/or Westlaw.
- Free legal information sources on the internet are often limited to governmental and organizational documents and public domain materials. Some online resources will charge to access governmental information especially a vendor as added content of value or arranged the government information so as to ease access and searching.
- Secondary sources will likely not be free as a publisher will want to make a profit on its publications.
- There are no free citators to make sure that your law is still good.
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