Yellow for Caution

What, exactly, are we paying for when we are paying for citators?

If you’ve read or skimmed or read the abstract of my paper – Yellow Flag Fever, 108 Law Libr. J. 77 (2016) – you might be left with that question or something similar.

Let me start at the beginning. I think a citator derives primary value from its integration in a “total” CALR system. (Of course, no one CALR system is total.) I don’t think it’s possible to extract a citator and judge it unconnected by the tools surrounding it, out of context. That said, my paper does try to examine and assess elements of citators without resorting to a “Coke vs. Pepsi” type of comparison.

I want to take the time to explain some of my findings and impressions here on the blog. You can leave questions in the comments below or send them to me on Twitter – I am @kirschsubjudice.

I also want to make one point very clear: I think citators are excellent tools, just not at the task of accurately identifying and describing the nature of negative precedent. I’ll be sure to address the good along with the bad in the weeks to come.

So for the first of these posts, I want to lay out a basic problem for you and talk about how it relates to my research.

False Negatives and False Positives

The case you’re researching has been overruled, but your citator doesn’t tell you that. It’s the nightmare scenario – the false negative!! Obviously, when you are assessing a citator, you want to know not if what you’re looking at is good law, but rather if it is bad law. If the citator says nothing, you’d like to think that it is definitely not bad.

What concerns me more as a buyer of a product for people, i.e. lawyers, faculty members, law students, and members of the public, is whether they will be able to use the system both *efficiently* and to yield the best results. I tend to worry much more about false positives. That is, how often is the case you’re researching characterized as receiving negative treatment when it really hasn’t? This isn’t dangerous, per se, but it’s wasteful.

As I conclude, KeyCite’s Yellow Flag is problematic because it tends to present a false positive more often than I’d like. It often means, in essence, that the researcher should read the case. Oh, gee, thanks. Of course you should read the case! But we don’t need a citator to tell us that, do we?