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Optimal Search Strategies in Legal Databases: General Concepts

This guide covers terms and connectors, Boolean logic, order of processing, advanced search commands, and resources for obtaining help

Searching Concepts

Keep in mind the following tips and techniques when crafting your query. Again, each database handles the specifics of how to do a task differently, but they all contain variations on the following:

Eliminate "stop words" from your search terms:

  • These are commonly-used words (such as of, in, on, the, if).
  • Your database may not search these terms at all (even if included in a phrase) and including them may even cause your search to fail.

Allow for word variations:

  • Use synonyms.
    • There are often multiple ways to describe the same concept or object.
    • Search engines are literal in that they will generally only look for exactly what you tell them to look for. For example, if you are looking for information related to cars but fail to include the term "automobiles" in your search you will only retrieve documents that have the word "cars" in them even though documents containing the word "automobiles" are relevant to your topic. 
    • To get around this shortcoming when creating your search, you need to account for all the ways in which your concept or object could possibly be described by someone. 
  • Specify any relevant word variations. In addition to thinking of multiple terms, you need to think of all the possible ways the terms describing your concept or object may vary, including variations such as plurals, possessives, compound/hyphenated words, variations in spelling, or acronyms.
    • Plurals: Understand how your database searches single, plural and possessive forms of a word. Account for the spelling of irregular plurals (child/children, man/men, woman/women) through the use of truncation, wildcard characters, or by connecting like terms with OR.
    • Hyphenated terms: Accommodate for variations where a hyphen may be used, not used, or replaced by a space, such as e-mail/email or cost-benefit/cost benefit.
    • Acronyms: May be entered with or without periods so include both variations. Always also include the spelled out version of the abbreviation. Example: NLRB could also appear as N.L.R.B. or National Labor Relations Board.
    • Truncation: locates variations of a term without having to spell out all possible variations. There are two main forms of truncation:
      • Root expanders: picks up variations, without limitations on the number of letters, at (usually) the end of a word. For example, a search on "medic" followed by the database's truncation symbol will also search medics, medical, medicine, medicinal, etc.
      • Universal characters: used to substitute for one or more letters in the middle or at the end of a word. Unlike a root expander, a universal character specifies the exact number of letters to be replaced or the maximum number of letters that can be replaced. Useful for irregular plurals (bus/buses), verb tenses (grew/grow), and spelling variations (theater/theatre).

Search Methods

Search Method

HeinOnline

Lexis+

Westlaw Edge

Documents by citation

Yes

Yes

Yes

Headnotes

No

Yes

Yes

Topic Search

Yes (PathFinder)

Yes

See Key Number search

Key Number Search 

No

No

Yes

Natural Language

Yes

Yes

Yes

Terms & Connectors

Yes

Yes

Yes