The search for experts

In your recent focus on expert witnesses (The Lawyer, 28 April 1998), you have aired the problem of the identification of suitable experts to act as expert witnesses.

In order to improve the specificity of expert selection, a number of bodies, including the Law Society, have set up databases. The problem with these methods is that they rely almost entirely on the self-report of the expert as to their area of activity.

Recently I have developed an alternative "benchmarking" approach, to identify experts whose credibility can be assured. Those who really know an area are the practitioners who research and work there. In medicine, where there is a strong tradition of publishing both new clinical observations and pure laboratory research, it is quite easy to search electronic databases to determine the publication record of a proposed expert.

These features are employed by editors of medical journals when offered a manuscript for publication. The article is sent to several academic referees who are known to be expert in the relevant area.

If we assume that over a period of time the editorial decisions of a range of different medical and scientific journals will provide a broad index of the standing of the expert, we can use this to determine suitable experts for a particular case.

The selection of experts by this method relies on an understanding of the scientific and medical literature and of the expectation of the legal team. It is fast and precise and in my experience it can produce a shortlist of potential experts within about an hour and a half.

Professor Nicholas J Birch, Consulting Biomedical Scientist