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It’s conference season again, and we’re back from the 2017 Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction conference, where presenters and audience members were fired up about algorithmic accountability and, well, drumming.

Librarians, as a group, are highly attuned to developments in information retrieval, and during the past several years, long-standing legal information providers have been joined by numerous startup companies in applying new technologies to legal research. In past years, legal informatics conferences covered these topics. This year, University of Colorado Law Library Director Susan Nevelow Mart presented a talk entitled “The Human Element in Search Algorithms: Bias and Accountability in Legal Databases”, based on her article “The Algorithm as a Human Artifact: Implications for Legal {Re}Search“.  

Mart presented the results of her research on search query performance across six services: Castext, Fastcase, Google Scholar, Lexis Advance, Ravel and Westlaw. The research found less than a 10% overlap in results across all six databases, and on average, 40% of the results were unique to one of the six.

The research has implications for practicing attorneys, scholars, students, and technologists. And it’s helping us refine our own thinking about how we inform people who use our website about what we’re doing behind the scenes to try to help them get the information they need.

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