Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 29, 2021

Frye: It's The End Of Legal Citation As We Know It

Brian L. Frye (Kentucky), It's The End Of Citation As We Know It & I Feel Fine:

ScholarSiftLegal scholarship sucks. It’s interminably long. It’s relentlessly boring. And it’s confusingly esoteric. But the worst thing about legal scholarship is the footnotes. Every sentence gets one1. Banal statement of historical fact? Footnote. Recitation of hornbook law? Footnote. General observation about scholarly consensus? Footnote. Original observation? Footnote as well, I guess. ...

There’s gotta be a better way. Thankfully, in 2020, Rob Anderson and Trent Wenzel created ScholarSift, a computer program that uses machine learning to analyze legal scholarship and identify the most relevant articles. Anderson is a law professor at Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law and Wenzel is a software developer. They teamed up to produce a platform intended to make legal scholarship more efficient. Essentially, ScholarSift tells authors which articles they should be citing, and tells editors whether an article is novel.

It works really well. As far as I can tell, ScholarSift is kind of like Turnitin in reverse. It compares the text of a law review article to a huge database of law review articles and tells you which ones are similar. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that machine learning is really good at identifying relevant scholarship. And ScholarSift seems to do a better job at identifying relevant scholarship than pricey legacy platforms like Westlaw and Lexis.

One of the many cool things about ScholarSift is its potential to make legal scholarship more equitable. In legal scholarship, as everywhere, fame begets fame. All too often, fame means the usual suspects get all the attention, and it’s a struggle for marginalized scholars to get the attention they deserve. Unlike other kinds of machine learning programs, which seem almost designed to reinforce unfortunate prejudices, ScholarSift seems to do the opposite, highlighting authors who might otherwise be overlooked. That’s important and valuable. I think Anderson and Wenzel are on to something, and I agree that ScholarSift could improve citation practices in legal scholarship.

But I also wonder whether the implications of ScholarSift are even more radical than they imagine? The primary point of footnotes is to identify relevant sources that readers will find helpful. That’s great. And yet, it can also be overwhelming. Often, people would rather just read the article, and ignore the sources, which can become distracting, even overwhelming. Anderson and Wenzel argue that ScholarSift can tell authors which articles to cite. I wonder if it couldn’t also make citations pointless. After all, readers can use ScholarSift, just as well as authors.

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