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Doing Legal, Political, and Historical Research on the Internet: Using Blog Forums, Open Source Dictionaries, and More


Friday, Sep. 09, 2005

For many reasons, I do my own research. Probably the leading motivation is that I enjoy it, given the serendipitous finds that inevitably turn up. When looking for one thing, you often discover information that otherwise would have been missed.

There is also a risk when using research assistants. As good and well-meaning as that assistant may be, you open yourself to the risk of the type of plagiarism problem that authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose encountered, when relying on information that they believed was original research, but turned out not to be.

When doing research, as I am now for my next book, there is always the question of how much time to spend running down obscure or arcane details that you believe important, but not vital, to the project. Such was the case for me, recently, when looking for the answer to a question I was sure someone had already addressed; I thought my answer should be there, but at first, I could not find it.

In this column, I will share the experience, and its resolution. It shows the magnificence of the Internet; and what I learned about research, could be applied in countless areas.

My Research Problem

Currently, I am doing research into the contemporary conservative movement. Indeed, when trying to determine if there was any real common understanding of how "conservatism" itself is defined, within the movement, as represented by many of the key conservative websites, I wrote a column on the subject.

Conservatism is a coalition with many factions, variously described as traditional conservatives (or paleoconservatives), fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Christian conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians, and the like. More recently, I was curious about what percentage of those who call themselves conservative, falls within each of the various factions. In other words, how do self-identified conservatives break down into subgroups?

Neither Google nor Yahoo searches produced results. Nor did searches of the various subscription databases to which I have access as a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California. After several days of browsing to look for the answer on and off, when I was not working on other matters, I realized the whole search was taking entirely too much time. That is when I had a thought.

I have noticed from time to time, and of late with increasing frequency, that bloggers raise inquiries with their readers -- and that they almost always not only receive remarkably good responses, but also seem to receive them rather quickly.

Among my favorite blogs is Josh Marshall's good work at the Talking Points Memo. Josh has added an interactive feature he calls TPM Café, so I decided to post an inquiry to see what it might produce.

Testing TPM Café For Reader Response

Recently, the New Politics Institute issued a report on the "Emergency of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics," which analyzes blogs -- left as well as right and center -- for their viewer traffic. According to that report, Josh's TPM site receives over a million weekly views, with the TPM Café receiving almost a half million. With a reader base this size, I hoped I might find an answer to my question.

So I posted an inquiry: "Author In Search Of Info...". In my posting, I explained what I was looking for, and why. I submitted the post as I was leaving my office shortly before 9 pm Pacific Daylight Time (thus, shortly before midnight in the East). When I checked the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find twenty-two responses.

All the response were intelligent (albeit, one was simply curious). A few were from FindLaw readers. I had forgotten about the New York Times analysis by Bill Marsh -- "A Guide to the Republican Herd," with its "pachyderm graphics"; readers reminded me of it. In addition, several responses lead me to articles I had not read.

And in one of the responses, I found as close to a solid answer as may be possible. It was from a source I would never have thought to examine, "The Mortgage News" prepared by the Home Equity Loan Center. If my searches had turned up this source, I'd doubtless ignored it as seemingly irrelevant. And indeed, I'm still not sure why the Home Equity Loan Center collected and reported this information, but I am certainly grateful that they did.

The poll was by TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics, a first-rate polling organization (with the most accurate call of the results of the 2004 election). They undertook the poll reported in the Mortgage News, which apparently was a private poll.

So, I found my answer, and I also discovered a fascinating research tool. And this wasn't the only one, I found, that the Internet offers.

Using Open Source Information

Open source software development has been around for a good while, producing products like Linux, which has become an increasing threat to Microsoft's operating system monopoly. Linux is "open source" in that it is non-proprietary; anyone can use it, and anyone can add to it, or help fix its bugs.

One of the leading, and best known, open-source information resources is Wikipedia, an online free encyclopedia. While Wikipedia is not without its flaws, it is becoming increasingly sophisticated and reliable. As the site itself explains, "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written collaboratively by many of its readers. Lots of people are constantly improving Wikipedia, making thousands of changes an hour, all of which are recorded on the page history and the Recent Changes page. Nonsense and vandalism are usually removed quickly, and their creators banned."

There are exceptions, however: When I read the Wikipedia entry for myself, for example, I found it falsely states that in 1995, I admitted that my book Blind Ambition was ghost-written. Not only did I never make such an admission, but the book was not, in fact, ghost-written. Obviously, I could make a submission to Wikipedia to correct this misinformation, but so far, I've held off, for I am more curious to see if the open sourcing is self-correcting, than I am concerned about the error. Maybe my entry will next read that my last five books, and my columns, were ghost-written as well. For now, I'll just watch and wait, for seeing if this error is corrected, will help me judge the reliability of research with open source tools.

A Million Heads Are Better Than One

And Wikipedia is just one example of a free site that relies on voluntary contributions - and correction - of information from a host of readers, writers and editors, and is thus, in this sense, "open source." It seems that the potentials of open source approaches in our Age of Information are endless. By bringing the information, experiences, knowledge and wisdom of many different minds together, such sources unite the resources of geographical disparate friends, colleagues and, very often, strangers. In this way, we might actually solve many of society's serious problems.

When I did a Google search on "open source" information, it produced 59,600,000 hits, which suggests I may be late to the game in discovering this unique research tool (though "open source" software may account for many of these hits). Nonetheless, I have written about it because everyone to whom I mentioned it, including a lot of Internet-savvy people, were all as ignorant as I had been of this potential. Obviously, using the Internet for open source resources is not a substitute for lazy researching, but I can attest that it works very well when you're stuck.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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