Monday, June 29, 2015

Long, Jargon-Filled Abstracts Win Citation Count

The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub req'd) ran an article reporting on a recent study of abstracts. The study found that articles with longer, jargon-filled abstracts are more likely to be cited across fields.

As CHE noted, Academics are often encouraged to write clearly and concisely, but that imperative may actually limit a paper’s impact on scholarship. A new study out of the University of Chicago has found that papers with longer, jargon-laden abstracts are more likely to be cited in other academic works than are brief, clear abstracts, which researchers are typically taught to write.

In a review of about one million abstracts, the three-person research team analyzed each one for clarity by evaluating metrics such as sentence length, parts of speech, and how much emotion was included in word choice. The researchers drew on that analysis to develop a mean score for each abstract. They then compared that score with how often each article was cited, theorizing that the most-cited articles were easily found through search engines. The research team looked specifically at articles in the top journals in eight scientific fields over 17 years. They selected the top journals using Scopus, a database of abstracts and citations of academic articles.

As on one of the researchers said, "[i]t’s pretty much completely opposite of the common advice. They tell you, 'Keep it as short and succinct, to the point, and have one main point per abstract.' And our findings are almost completely opposite, not only for one subject, but it was across fields. And even more than that, it was pretty uniform across all the journals in each field. So how unanimous the finding was, and the fact that it’s opposite what most people are told to do, is very surprising."

When I discussed this study with my law-faculty colleagues, the first thing that they mentioned was the dichotomy between the advice to get published versus this new advice to have an impact. While it hasn't been studied in depth, it is common advice for legal scholars to write concise abstracts to get published in law reviews. But it seems that the concise abstracts written to get published may be working against them for purposes of scholarly impact.

Another colleague verified what some of the commenters of the CHE article mentioned: That oftentimes researchers do not read beyond the abstract. If the abstract contains a more informative synopsis of the paper, the researchers will cite to the wording in the abstract without actually reading the entire article. This makes some sense as to why articles with longer, jargon-filled abstracts get cited more often.

An interesting observation indeed!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Law Librarian Cited In SCOTUS Opinion

John Cannan, research and instructional services librarian at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law in Philadelphia, made the history books yesterday, June 25. The United States Supreme Court opinion King v. Burwell cites Cannan's Law Library Journal article, "A Legislative History of the Affordable Care Act: How Legislative Procedure Shapes Legislative History," 105 Law Libr. J. 131 (2013).

Chief Justice Roberts cites Cannan's article on page 14 of the opinion: 

The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. (To cite just one, the Act creates three separate Section 1563s. See 124 Stat. 270, 911, 912.) Several features of the Act's passage contributed to that unfortunate reality. Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors, rather than through "the traditional legislative process." Cannan, A Legislative History of the Affordable Care Act: How Legislative Procedure Shapes Legislative History, 105 L. Lib. J. 131, 163 (2013). And Congress passed much of the Act using a complicated budgetary procedure known as "reconciliation," which limited opportunities for debate and amendment, and bypassed the Senate's normal 60-vote filibuster requirement. Id., at 159-167. As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation. Cf. Frankfurter, Some Reflections on the Reading of Statutes, 47 Colum. L.Rev. 527, 545 (1947) (describing a cartoon "in which a senator tells his colleagues 'I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We'll just have to pass it to find out what it means.'").

King v. Burwell, 2015 US 70, at 14.

King v. Burwell upholds a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that provides tax subsidies for the purchase of health insurance in all 50 states.

This is the second time that a Law Library Journal article has been cited by a Supreme Court Opinion; in 2010, Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Ins. Co. cited Jose R. Torres' and Steve Windsor's article, "State Legislative Histories: A Select, Annotated Bibliography," 85 Law Libr. J. 545, 547 (1993).

Congratulations to John Cannan for this exciting achievement! 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Student Loan "Tax Bomb" - IBR, PSLF, PAYE & REPAYE

Student loans are confusing. They are particularly confusing for law graduates when nearly 85% of law school students graduate with $100,000 or more in debt.

We started with Income Based Repayment (IBR) that allows borrowers to pay back their student loans based on their income. Then we moved to IBR coupled with Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) for borrowers who took out loans between 2007 and 2011 and work at a 501(c)(3). This allows graduates to pay based on their income and after 10 years of repayment while working at a non-profit, the rest of the debt is forgiven without a tax burden.

For those not working under PSLF but utilizing IBR, the terms were adjusted to allow borrowers to limit repayment to 15% of their discretionary income and have any remaining balance forgiven after 25 years of repayment with a tax burden on the amount forgiven.

Then in 2012, the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program was created so that graduates could limit their federal loan payments to 10% of their discretionary income and  have any remaining balance forgiven after 20 years with a tax burden on the amount forgiven.

With both IBR and PAYE, the amount forgiven after 20 or 25 years is treated as taxable income, which one law professor calls a "tax bomb." Thousands of recent law-school graduates have taken advantage of these programs aimed at easing student-debt burdens.

The plans require federal student-loan borrowers to pay back as little as 10%-15% of their discretionary income each month over 20 to 25 years. After that period, any remaining balance is forgiven. As attractive as the terms may be, some law-school graduates enrolled in the programs could be facing what one law professor dubs a “tax bomb” down the road. Specifically, it’s set to go off in 2032, the first year when the loans qualify for debt forgiveness. At that point, the forgiven debt turns into “cancellation of debt” income under the tax code, taxed as ordinary income, says Southern Methodist University law professor Gregory S. Crespi.

For an IBR or PAYE law graduate enrollee with a $200,000 or larger unpaid debt at the time of their debt forgiveness this may well mean a combined federal and state income tax bill on this additional attributed income of at least $50,000 up to perhaps $100,000 or more, and an enrollee with $300,000 or more of forgiven debt may owe additional income taxes in the neighborhood of $125,000 or even more!

Now there is a revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) program expected to launch in December 2015 that will greatly diminish the impact of the "tax bomb." REPAYE is a new income-based repayment program that is available to all federal direct loan borrowers regardless of when they took out their loans. It allows borrowers to cap monthly payments at 10 % of their discretionary income and have any remaining debt forgiven after 20 or 25 years without the "tax bomb." Under the proposed REPAYE program, however, spousal earnings are now included in the calculation of discretionary income.

For those of you currently taking advantage of IBR or PAYE, you may want to consider enrolling in REPAYE when it becomes available to stop the "tax bomb" from ticking.

For those of you currently taking advantage of IBR with PSLF, you may want to wait and see how PSLF works with REPAYE before taking the plunge.

More to come...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Google Skewing Results To Favor Google

In March, the Wall Street Journal covered "[a] previously undisclosed report by staffers at the Federal Trade Commission [that] reveals new details about how Google Inc. manipulated search results to favor its own services over rivals’, even when they weren’t most relevant for users."

In a lengthy investigation, staffers in the FTC’s bureau of competition found evidence that Google boosted its own services for shopping, travel and local businesses by altering its ranking criteria and “scraping” content from other sites. It also deliberately demoted rivals. For example, the FTC staff noted that Google presented results from its flight-search tool ahead of other travel sites, even though Google offered fewer flight options. Google’s shopping results were ranked above rival comparison-shopping engines, even though users didn’t click on them at the same rate, the staff found.

When confronted about the skewed results, Google spokespeople were adamant that they were not "cooking" the results, saying “[w]e regularly change our search algorithms and make over 500 changes a year to help our users get the information they want. We created search for users, not websites—and that focus has driven our improvements over the last decade.”

It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that a for-profit company that competes with other sites to offer the best searches would skew results in its favor. What is surprising is Google's insistence that it is not skewing results. While this isn't true for all types of searches, it is important for researchers to understand how they returned certain results to be able to truly analyze the reputability of a resource. If an academic uses Google to find information (which, I would presuppose that most do), it is enlightening to know who sponsors the website with the supporting information or what types of websites are promoting the information to make a judgment call about the biases, for example, inherent in the information.

As the WSJ articles goes on to note, "[o]ne way Google favored its own results was to change its ranking criteria. Google typically ranks sites based on measures like the number of links that point to a site, or how often users click on the site in search results."

Ultimately, the FTC found that Google's efforts paid off. It said Google’s maneuvers reduced Web traffic to rivals, and increased traffic to Google sites.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Wikipedia's Slow Decline

The NYTimes recently posted an article asking, "can Wikipedia survive?" The article discusses the issues plaguing Wikipedia, including the rise of mobile computing.

Wikipedia has come a long way since it started in 2001. With around 70,000 volunteers editing in over 100 languages, it is by far the world’s most popular reference site. Its future is also uncertain. One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant personal computing device. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years. This is a challenge for Wikipedia, which has always depended on contributors hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing articles using a special markup code. Even before smartphones were widespread, studies consistently showed that these are daunting tasks for newcomers. 'Not even our youngest and most computer-savvy participants accomplished these tasks with ease,' a 2009 user test concluded. The difficulty of bringing on new volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor participation.

I, for one, can attest at the complexity of editing. I recently started a project to promote faculty scholarship by citing to the scholarship on pertinent posts in Wikipedia's further reading section. It's not easy to perform editing via PC -- let alone on a smartphone.

The NYTimes articles goes on to highlight some of the solutions to the decline in participation. The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia’s operations but is not directly involved in content, is investigating solutions. Some ideas include touch-screen tools that would let Wikipedia editors sift through information and share content from their phones.

What is clear is that Wikimedia has options because fund-raising has not suffered. The foundation, based in San Francisco, has a budget of roughly $60 million.

If Wikimedia can steer the encyclopedia in the right direction, it is worth it. No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the hands of so many — a feat made all the more remarkable by the absence of profit and owners. In an age of Internet giants, this most selfless of websites is worth saving.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Law School Reform Taking Shape

Salon recently posted a fairly comprehensive article discussing the generally universal recommended reforms to legal education.

From the article:
Almost thirty years ago, the New York Times ran a Sunday magazine feature titled, “The Trouble with America’s Law Schools.” The piece highlighted many of the curricular concerns common today, particularly the lack of practical training, the inattention to issues of professional responsibility, and the disengagement of upper-level law students.

And as noted, we're still dealing with many of the same issues today. Here are some of the highlights from the recommended reforms:

Finances:
Schools also need to look for more ways to cut costs and to diversify their revenue streams. More programs for nonlawyers, undergraduates, practicing attorneys, and foreign graduate students are obvious options. Debt burdens for students could also be reduced by allowing them to attend after three years of college, as a few law schools now do.

Structure:
A further way of reducing the cost of at least some law schools would be for state supreme courts to eliminate the requirement that only graduates from ABA-accredited law schools may sit for the bar exam.

Curricula:
Educators should consider what competencies are necessary for legal practice and then adjust requirements accordingly. Such an approach would argue for greater focus on practical skills.

Values:
Clinics are an especially effective way of teaching legal ethics; engagement tends to be greatest when students are dealing with real people facing real problems. Ethical judgment in such settings demands more than knowledge of relevant rules and principles; it also demands a capacity to understand how those rules apply and which principles are most important in concrete settings.

Law Reviews:
A recent empirical study of law professors, student editors, attorneys, and judges identified ways to improve the editorial process. One is for student editors to rely on blind reviews and to consult with faculty in selecting articles to publish. Another is more training for student editors concerning selection and editing. Such training could help reduce the excessive length and references that have made articles so off-putting to nonacademic audiences.

Most of these suggested reforms are happening in some form across the country. There are schools starting master's of law programs for non-JD students, there are states allowing law school graduates to skip the bar exam altogether or allow limited licensed legal technicians to practice law, there is a call law-school wide to go toward a more practical education, and there has been talk of these types law review reforms for years with some schools taking action.

Although it may have happened at a snail's pace and under serious pressure, the law school model is changing.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Well-Optimized Abstract

One of the services that I offer to my faculty is writing abstracts optimized for search engines. I recently came across an article from Wiley that illustrates the benefits of a well-optimized abstract.

Optimizing your article for search engines will greatly increase its chance of being viewed and/or cited in another work. Citation indexes already figure in many disciplines as a measure of an article's value; there is evidence that article views/downloads are also beginning to count in the same way. The crucial area for optimization is your article's abstract and title, which are freely available to all online. We have compiled these guidelines to enable you to maximize the web-friendliness of the most public part of your article.

And as I have mentioned in the past, SSRN only indexes the title, abstract, and keywords, so a well-optimized article is essential for discoverability.

A few suggestions from Wiley on how to optimize:
Step 1: Construct a clear, descriptive title
In search engine terms, the title of your article is the most interesting element. The search engine assumes that the title contains all of the important words that define the topic of the piece and thus weights words appearing there most heavily. This is why it is crucial for you to choose a clear, accurate title. Think about the search terms that readers are likely to use when looking for articles on the same topic as yours, and help them by constructing your title to include those terms. In the days of print-only journals, it mattered far less if, for example, an author published an article on body dysmorphic disorder called, The Broken Mirror in a psychology journal because the context was clear. On the web, people search on mirror when they want an item for their house.

Step 2: Reiterate key phrases
The next most important field is the text of the abstract itself. You should reiterate the key words or phrases from the title within the abstract itself. You know the key phrases for your subject area, whether it is temporal lobe epilepsy or reconstruction in Iraq. Although we can never know exactly how search engines rank sites (their algorithms are closely-guarded secrets and frequently updated), the number of times that your key words and phrases appear on the page can have an important effect. Use the same key phrases, if possible in the title and abstract. Note of caution: unnecessary repetition will result in the page being rejected by search engines so don't overdo it. The examples below illustrate the difference between an abstract which is well-optimized and one which is not.

Example of Well-Optimized Title/Abstract: 

Genocide and Holocaust Consciousness in Australia

Ever since the British colonists in Australia became aware of the disappearance of the indigenous peoples in the 1830s, they have contrived to excuse themselves by pointing to the effects of disease and displacement. Yet although genocide was not a term used in the nineteenth century, extermination was, and many colonists called for the extermination of Aborigines when they impeded settlement by offering resistance. Consciousness of genocide was suppressed during the twentieth century until the later 1960s, when a critical school of historians began serious investigations of frontier violence. Their efforts received official endorsement in the 1990s, but profound cultural barriers prevent the development of a general genocide consciousness. One of these is Holocaust consciousness, which is used by conservative and right-wing figures to play down the gravity of what transpired in Australia. These two aspects of Australian public memory are central to the political humanisation of the country.

This article appears on the first page of results on Google for holocaust consciousness + Australia and for genocide + Australia.

Poorly Optimized Title/Abstract: 

Australia's Forgotten Victims

Ever since the British colonists in Australia became aware of the disappearance of the indigenous peoples in the 1830s, they have contrived to excuse themselves by pointing to the effects of disease and displacement. Many colonists called for the extermination of Aborigines when they impeded settlement by offering resistance, yet there was no widespread public acknowledgement of this as a policy until the later 1960s, when a critical school of historians began serious investigations of frontier violence. Their efforts received official endorsement in the 1990s, but profound cultural barriers prevent the development of a general awareness of this. Conservative and right-wing figures continue to play down the gravity of what transpired. These two aspects of Australian public memory are central to the political humanisation of the country.

And a few more tips:
  • People tend to search for specifics, not just one word e.g. women's fiction not fiction.
  • Ensure that the title contains the most important words that relate to the topic.
  • Key phrases need to make sense within the title and abstract and flow well.
  • It is best to focus on a maximum of three or four different keyword phrases in an abstract rather than try to get across too many points.
  • Finally, always check that the abstract reads well, remember the primary audience is still the researcher not a search engine, so write for readers not robots. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Law Librarians Upping Efficacy Of Faculty Scholarship

Is your faculty's scholarship reaching its intended audience? Is it truly having an impact?

Most law schools are in the zero-sum game of the USNews ranking system. The quality assessment by peers and lawyers/judges makes up nearly 40% of the overall score. One of the ways to help this score is by upping the reputation of the school - say, through the promotion of impactful faculty scholarship.

Currently, we have impact factors for the individual journals, but there is no widespread system of comparing the schools' overall faculty scholarship. One (of a few) impact factors for the individual journals is from the Washington & Lee Law Journal Submissions & Rankings Database is based on "the average number of annual citations to articles in each journal (rounded to two decimal places)."

One (imperfect) method of comparing scholarship for an entire school's faculty is to base it on the number of downloads from SSRN &/or the institutional repository. Bepress Scholarly Commons institutional repository has a great feature that performs live tracking of downloads for all articles, and for all of the schools that use Scholarly Commons, it is easy to compare total downloads.

While the download tracking functionality is wonderful, it does not capture the downloads on SSRN. And there are many schools that do not use Scholarly Commons as the institutional repository, so this comparison does not work for them. 

In order to make this type of comparison of faculty scholarship across all law schools consistent, librarians are in the best position to make it a reality. The librarian workflow could include tracking faculty scholarship alerts. Anytime there is a new article, the librarian could automatically upload it to SSRN and to the institutional repository - writing the necessary abstracts and attaching keywords. The librarian could then use the law library's social media accounts to promote the scholarship.

Once all faculty scholarship (both current and retrospective) has been uploaded to SSRN and the institutional repository, the librarian could then track the number of actual downloads to create an faculty scholarship comparison of sorts. 

Until all schools utilize a similar system of uploading scholarship and tracking downloads, the numbers will forever be skewed. And the download system can be gamed, so it's not a perfect measure of the efficacy of scholarship. But it's an idea. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Legal Technicians Have Arrived

The first seven people have passed the exam in Washington to become the country's first legal technicians.

The ABA Journal reported on this trend in January. The legal technicians will be licensed by the state to provide legal advice and assistance to clients in certain areas of law without the supervision of a lawyer. The first practice area in which LLLTs will be licensed is domestic relations.

"So far, Washington stands alone in formally licensing nonlawyers to provide legal services. But California is actively considering nonlawyer licensing, and several other states are beginning to explore it. New York has sidestepped licensing and is already allowing nonlawyers to provide legal assistance in limited circumstances while also looking to expand their use."

As for the practicalities, the legal technicians "will be free to set their own fees and work independently of lawyers, even opening their own offices. The laws of attorney-client privilege and of a lawyer's fiduciary responsibility to the client will apply just as they would to an attorney. LLLTs (limited license legal technician) will be authorized to help clients prepare and review legal documents and forms; advise them on other documents they may need; explain legal procedures and proceedings, including procedures for service of process and filing of legal documents; and gather relevant facts and explain their significance. They may also perform legal research, but only if the work is approved by a Washington lawyer. LLLTs may not accompany clients into court or engage in negotiations on a client's behalf. The LLLT board is considering whether to propose an amendment to the rule that would allow LLLTs to engage in these activities."

"To become an LLLT, an applicant must have at least an associate's degree and complete 45 credit hours of core curriculum currently being taught at community colleges in the state. The core curriculum is specified by court rule and covers topics such as civil procedure, contracts, legal research and writing, professional responsibility, and law office procedures and technology. In addition, applicants must complete courses specific to the practice area in which they seek to be licensed. For family law, the only approved practice area so far, the 15-hour curriculum was developed jointly by the state's three ABA-approved law schools—at Gonzaga University, Seattle University and the University of Washington. Applicants also must have 3,000 hours of substantive law-related work experience supervised by a licensed lawyer."

"Once licensed, LLLTs will be subject to a regulatory framework similar to that for lawyers. They will be required to pay an annual license fee, fulfill annual continuing education requirements, set up IOLTA accounts for handling their clients' funds, and maintain professional liability insurance in the amount of at least $100,000 per claim and $300,000 annual aggregate."

All states will be watching as the Washington program gets off the ground. This may just be the key to close the justice gap, as "[p]roponents maintain there is simply no other way to address the justice gap in the United States. They cite multiple state and federal studies showing that 80 to 90 percent of low- and moderate-income Americans with legal problems are unable to obtain or afford legal representation. The economics of traditional law practice make it impossible for lawyers to offer their services at prices these people can afford."