Research magpies: student sourcing behaviours on an undergraduate law degree

Jed Meers, Jenny Gibbons, Wendy Laws

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We recorded 10 undergraduate law students responding to a research task at York Law School, University of York, UK. Analysing these videos was like observing research magpies: darting ruthlessly from source to source in search of the shiniest material to determine, as quickly as possible, the “content” of the law. These students cast their search widely, using “unofficial knowledge” – such as case summaries from Google – to supplement their use of the “official knowledge” found in set textbooks or sources signposted by Law School staff. They distinguish between “normative” research and “substantive” legal research (or what one student described as “law-y stuff”), neglecting the former in favour of the latter. And they prize efficiency above all else, rapidly dismissing sources or techniques perceived as too unwieldly. After outlining these behaviours by drawing on Gibbons’ work on “unofficial knowledge”, we propose three broader arguments: (i) students do not engage with “official knowledge” resources in the way that law curriculum designers intend or expect they do, (ii) there is a tension between encouraging independent learning and the use of “unofficial” knowledge, and (iii) students do not appreciate the value of normative sources sufficiently. We argue for further research in these three areas and in the heavily under-analysed theoretical problems posed by “unofficial knowledge” in legal higher education.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalTeaching in Higher Education
Early online date13 Feb 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Feb 2020

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