Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Research Tip - Use IDEN to Find Databases on Westlaw

There are so many databases on Westlaw that it is sometimes difficult to find the right database. (The same can be said of sources on LexisNexis, but that will have to wait until another Research Tip.) In this Research Tip I will discuss some of the problems you may have encountered in trying to identify databases and give you a couple of suggestions for doing so more efficiently.

To get to the Westlaw Directory of databases from nearly any screen on Westlaw, click on Directory in the gray bar across the top. You will see a "Search the Westlaw Directory" search box near the top. According to the Help Center, you can use the Search feature to "search for a specific database." Type a word or phrase in the box and click on the Search button to retrieve a list of databases. Twenty databases seems to be the maximum that will be listed, and it is not possible to advance to another screen listing more databases.

We have found that this Search feature does not necessarily give the highest ranking to the database that most closely matches what you typed. For example, our Lawyering Skills students recently had an assignment that required them to find a Time magazine article on Westlaw. Since the question gave a specific publication, a researcher would expect the Search feature to list that publication at the top. However, a search of the Directory for "Time magazine" retrieved a list of 20 databases, none of which was the Time magazine database. Some of the 20 databases were combination databases that included at least some articles from Time, but those databases are less efficient – and probably more expensive – to use than the more specific database. Other databases on the list were neither combination databases nor databases that had either of the search terms (Time or magazine) in their names.

Searching the Directory simply for "Time" did retrieve the Time magazine database, but it appeared on the list below 10 newspapers with the word "Times" in their titles.

I do not know how the "Search the Westlaw Directory" feature ranks its database lists, but the ranking algorithm clearly did not work in this instance. I have seen similarly dismal results on occasion, so I know that this result is not an anomaly. Assuming that researchers even realize that the Search feature is not listing the best databases first, what can they do? In the Time magazine example, browsing may have worked. Although magazines is not one of the examples listed on the front page of the Directory, beginning researchers may have guessed that magazines would be included in the "Westnews News & Business" directory and clicked there, then on Magazines and scrolled down to Time. But browsing does not always work. There are many databases on Westlaw that do not clearly fit in any of the main directories or that fit in more than one.

The solution may be an old database that is rarely mentioned in Westlaw training. Its official name is the "WESTLAW Database List," but most experienced researchers refer to it by its identifier, IDEN. According to its Scope information, the "IDEN database contains documents naming all databases . . . available on WESTLAW, and includes the identifier used to select the database, the originating source of the data contained in the database as well as all published sources, and beginning coverage, currentness and citing information."

Let's stick with the Time magazine example for illustration. Instead of searching the Westlaw Directory for "Time magazine," search the "WESTLAW Database List" by typing IDEN in the Search box at the top of the Directory screen or in the Go box in the left frame of the Welcome screen. This will take you to a standard search screen with the options of a "Terms and Connectors" search or a "Natural Language" search. A Terms and Connectors search for "Time magazine" lists the Time magazine database, TIMEMAG, as the top database retrieved.

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