Monday, November 30, 2009

Google Scholar Takes On Legal Content: Are Enterprise Suppliers Threatened?

When Google Scholar launched five years ago on the Web, its aggregation of freely available scientific literature and citations launched some sizable seismic activity in publishing circles. All of a sudden, content that had been aggregated only via expensive subscription database services was available for free and accessible as easily as any Web page. Five years later, Google Scholar has expanded to include most freely available academic research sources, as well as abstracts from subscription sources and public patent records and is an increasingly popular resource for researchers and students. However, major aggregators of scientific publications still remain successful, in large part because they continue to develop more sophisticated search and display applications and, well, because time has been on their side. Pressures from Open Access advocates who press for free access to scientific research and an increasing array of applications built using Google Scholar as a source have begun to open major cracks in the barriers to entry into scientific publishing markets, but the people in charge of enterprise purse strings did not use Google Scholar in their university days. So, in spite of budget cuts. the status quo remains largely intact for many scholarly publishers.

With this in mind, some reasonable skepticism is probably in order as Google announces the launch of a new Google Scholar service that makes full text legal opinions and legal citations available for case documents from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts. Public records are becoming more commonly available in general thanks to both Google and other publishers that see opportunities in generating value from public content, so this move should come as no major surprise to anyone. Yet this first major foray by Google into legal content is surprisingly strong - and may be the beneficiary of better timing than earlier Google Scholar product improvements. While legal publishers will rest soundly knowing that the search capabilities for legal documents in Google Scholar are limited to simple "white box" queries, they may not be so tranquil when they look at the results themselves. Documents are rich in links to legal references in the cited documents, a capability that has been for many years one of the key calling cards for legal databases.

Things get even more interesting when you look at the citations tab that is available for each located legal document. Google Scholar offers you brief, in-context snippets of how a case was cited in key documents, as well as comprehensive listings of citations in court documents and documents related contextually to the selected document. While that's far from the full capabilities that a LexisNexis or Thomson West offer to their professional clients, it's pretty much pointed at the core of their database offerings, nevertheless.

The Above the Law blog has a good summary of analysis and reactions from both legal experts and publishers, but I think that the most salient point comes from Social Media Law Student, which points out that this freely available information is likely to become a "go-to" content source for students who may not have ready access to subscription-based content sources. Looking at the offerings coming to market from Lexis.com, though, which I walked through recently as a part of my SIIA CODiE judging for Best Aggregation Service, it's not as if LexisNexis isn't aware of this "digital native" culture gap, as they try to index both public documents and freely available Web content to make it more accessible to legal students and professionals.

The threat that Google Scholar's new legal content represents to established publishers, though, is the exposure of a huge body of public documents to applications builders and content services. Much as Google Books' scanned out-of-print library holdings have created a resource for ebook platforms from the likes of Sony and Barnes and Noble, this new initiative from Google opens up more cost-effective competition for legal services publishers who may want to attack legal markets from new and innovative angles using Google Scholar as a resource. Some of the innovators may be startup companies in the mold of Collexis, which leveraged publicly available scientific content to showcase their innovative content discovery tools. Others may be business information competitors in adjacent markets, who may see a way to pick off some of the "low-lying fruit" using core legal content maintained by Google.

None of these really add up to a significant challenge to either LexisNexis or Thomson West in the short run, but they will tend to hold down their margins as they lose some market share and lose leverage at the negotiating table at contract renewal time. What this does add up to, though, is a strong case to have professional-grade legal information services more integrated into a far wider array of business information sources to support enterprise decision-making on many levels. If digital natives will have increased access to well-integrated legal content, the high end of legal information markets will need more unique content and integration across a fuller range of business information sources to justify premium prices.

As I mentioned earlier on ContentBlogger, I do think that Reed Elsevier would be smart to consider selling LexisNexis at this time in anticipation of this likely consolidation - or, alternatively, expand its business information holdings to build a broader base of services for LexisNexis. I think that the former is more feasible than the latter given current market conditions, and would enable Reed Elsevier to cash in on the still-formidable value of LexisNexis before it begins to lose significant market growth potential. Thomson was able to spin off its print assets near the peak of their value before print publishing markets ran aground, a trick that Reed Elsevier was not as fortunate in managing in the sale of its Reed Business Information publishing assets. Google's new legal offerings are not a death knell for premium legal information services, but they are a canary in the coal mine for database services based on public legal records. We'll be watching this space carefully in the months ahead.
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