7 Secondary Sources: Academic Journals and Trade Publications


Journal articles are excellent sources when you need timely materials because you’re researching a recent change (relative to textbooks), or when the topic of research is very specific: Generally, journal articles take a narrower focus, in comparison with textbooks.

When researching for practical legal research, you no longer need to restrict your focus to peer-reviewed sources. While still valuable, academic law reviews tend to respond more slowly to changes in law, and are often less practical in focus. Trade publications, on the other hand, focus on timely publication of matters of interest to legal practitioners. They are, truly, news you can use.

Therefore, while there are wealth of different publications that fall under the general “journal” umbrella, it is important to consider who the intended audience is (academics v practitioners), the standard of editing (peer-review), and even the publishing cycle (daily versus annual issues) in order to assess whether a given journal/article will be an appropriate source for your research.

Academic Journals

Most academic journals publish on a quarterly, semi-annual, or even annual schedule. Therefore, the information in them may not reflect recent developments. Articles tend to be authored by academics, and occasionally by upper year law students. Most academic journals require articles to go through a peer review process, so there is some assurance that the information in an article is of fairly high quality, and free of at least overt bias.

Most academic articles are on the longer side, when compared to other types of articles, and often take a deep dive on topics such as the impact of a particular case, suggested changes to legislation, legal theory, or the philosophy of law. Often, although certainly not always, articles tend towards a more theoretical perspective, with a more prospective or querying attitude: What could or should be, not always what is.

While there are many Canadian academic journals (most law schools produce one or more), the academic journal universe is much larger outside our borders… There are hundreds of academic law journals published in the United States, and many more around the world, in English and other languages. Do not immediately discount journals published outside of Canada. Academic authors not infrequently write about jurisdictions other than their own, whether to describe them, or to compare and contrast with their local jurisdiction. It is not uncommon to find articles on Canadian law, written by American authors, in American journals! Therefore, do not be too hasty in limiting the  scope of your search to purely Canadian journals.

Articles in Reporters

When looking for articles, particularly on Westlaw Edge Canada’s “Articles and Newsletters” page, you may have noticed the slightly confounding heading “Law Report Articles.” These are a peculiar and often confusing blur between primary and secondary sources… The volume/reporter is primary, but the article is a secondary source! Essentially, some volumes of some reporters contain or more articles, usually at the beginning of the volume. The reporters that contain these articles are almost always topical reporters (Immigration Law Reports, Canadian Cases on Employment Law, Administrative Law Reports, etc), and the articles deal with aspects of the reporter’s topic. Often, the articles are comments on a case found in the reporter or discussion of new legislation that impacts the topic covered by the reporter, but can also be of more general interest to practitioners in that area of law. Browsing these tables of contents can be a great way to see what topics are of current concern in a given area of law, and searching these collections can help you create a more general search that is less likely to miss key articles.

Trade Publications

Often, when using print, trade publications can be easily identified simply by their shiny paper, and full colour images! Unlike most academic journals, trade publications are profit-driven, and contain much more advertising. Trade publications publish on a monthly, weekly, or sometimes even daily schedule, and therefore respond incredibly quickly to changes in legislation or jurisprudence. As well, they are usually aimed at practicing lawyers, with most of the articles written by practitioners.

Compared to academic journals, articles in trade publications tend to be much shorter (often only a page or two), and contain few or no footnotes: Whatever citations they include, usually only a handful, are found within the text of the article. Often, these articles are focused on a single recent case, new or amended legislation, changes to government policy, or other another fairly discrete topic of interest to a legal practitioner. These articles are often intended to report on a new or notable situation, followed by a brief description of the author’s perspective on what the impact of the situation is, or may be, on practitioners in the field.

Trade publications can generally be split into two categories; general interest, and practice area-specific. General interest publications are those such as Canadian Lawyer, the Lawyer’s Daily, and Law Times. Most general interest publications have a limited free web presence, with more content available behind a paywall. Practice area-specific publications are often produced by a single author, or firm, and are usually explicitly intended as current awareness tools. These newsletters are not always the easiest to access, but can be found in a number of contexts:

  • Via subscription databases.
    • On Lexis+, look under Current Awareness.
    • On Westlaw Edge Canada, Articles & Newsletters.
    • These can often be set up via Alerts (Lexis+: Bell Icon. WestlawNext Canada: Alerts, Westclip, browse to newsletter of interest, use newsletter name for Search Term).
  • Via Canlii. A selection of newsletters are available.
  • Via membership in industry groups or bar associations. Examples:
  • Law firms: Many larger firms produce newsletters on the firm’s major area of practice. These newsletters can often be subscribed to, via email, usually for free. While the content is usually quite good, and trustworthy, it is worth keeping in mind that these newsletters are also a promotional product.
    • Check the websites of firms that focus on the area of law of interest. Look under “News” or “Resources,” as this content may not explicitly be labeled as a newsletter.

Finding Journal Articles

Finding articles can sometimes be dependent on what type of article you are interested in, so not every one of these techniques is as relevant to every type of article.

Index to Canadian Legal Literature (ICLL)

As an Index, ICLL does not contain the actual full text of articles. While this seems like a significant disadvantage, this is actually the strength of the ICLL: Because ICLL only contains article titles, authors, citations, and subject headings, licensing and copyright concerns are basically eliminated, which allows it to cover/index a vast array of articles including CPD/CLE, trade and academic journals, and theses and dissertations: Coverage list.

Because each actual record in ICLL is quite short, this means that in order to search it effectively, it is important to be general in searching, and very sparing with search terms. This is not the appropriate source to use a half a dozen search terms and connectors! Use one or two terms, and then once you’ve found one promising article, follow the linked subject headings in its record to expand your search to additional articles.

Once you have the citation to a promising article, you can then find it in other sources, such as via a library catalogue, or via journal databases such as Heinonline. If the article is still inaccessible, this is a great time to ask a librarian for help to retrieve it. ICLL is on both Westlaw Edge Canada, and Lexis+.

Full Text Databases

There are fairly limited collections of academic legal periodicals on both Westlaw Next Canada and Lexis+. These collections tend to be limited to journals published by the parent company of the database, plus a handful of academic journals who license their content to the databases. In both databases, you can browse recent articles from individual journals, search the entire journals collection, or search one individual journal.

A much broader collection (but one that omits many of the journals published by the aforementioned database parent companies) is found on Heinonline. With thousands of legal journals from around the world, Heinonline also includes over 100 Canadian journals. A significant advantage to accessing journal articles on Heinonline, when possible, is that the content is scans of the original full text, and as such, the original pagination as well as any diagrams/illustrations etc, are intact.

Journals found solely on Westlaw Edge Canada and Lexis+ tend to not be indexed (searchable) at the article level by library catalogues. Therefore, you will have to access the relevant database yourself to search for a given article.

Heinonline, on the other hand, can be searched in a multitude of ways, each with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  1. Via Heinonline‘s own search bar. Their search functionality can have some interesting implementations of connectors that sometimes do not yield expected results.
  2. Via a library catalogue. Many libraries that subscribe to Heinonline have a catalogue interface that allows you to search inside Heinonline at the article, or even full-text level, as part of a catalogue search. This is also a great way to see where else a particular article may be found, as many journals are housed in multiple databases.
  3. Via Google Scholar. Heinonline is indexed on Google Scholar, so when the “Articles” radio button is selected from the Google Scholar homepage, you are actually searching Heinonline, as well as a wealth of other scholarly material. As long as you are signed in to your university’s proxy server, you can go directly into these articles. The advantage of using Google Scholar as the entry point is largely the familiarity of the interface, and the ease of integration with other sources of scholarly work (such as institutional repositories).


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Legal Research - A Practical Perspective Copyright © 2022 by Meris Bray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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