National Paralegal College

Advanced Research Strategies

by Eve Rosenbaum

Being a strong researcher will serve you well in all facets of your education and professional life. Being able to quickly access primary and secondary source material, as well as compelling support for arguments, is a skill of successful scholars. Thus, spending some time getting to know the strategies for advanced searching in almost any database will prove useful as you navigate the often endless sea of available information.

Subject Headings

Most databases and scholarly search engines do not respond to full sentences, questions, or other attempts to use large quantities of natural language. Databases have nuanced subject headings and keywords. Using a database’s thesaurus or list of subject headings can save many wasted hours of search time. In LexisNexis, for example, at the end of a legal journal article on medical malpractice, there is a list of “Legal Topics” provided for further searching, including “Law Actions Against Healthcare Workers.” Using the search language of the database should yield more thorough and positive results. Footnotes in LexisNexis will also provide direct links to legal documents related to the subject of research.

Logical or Boolean Operators

The use of logical or Boolean operators, AND and OR, are the key elements needed to develop a search strategy for most research endeavors. Sometimes, however, some additional procedures are needed for more precise and focused searches. Such additional precision is especially important when searching the full-text of articles or other records in full-text databases.

Using the OR logical operator basically broadens a search, the AND operator is the primary method discussed so far for narrowing a search. When used in a full-text database, the AND logical operator often does not limit searches with enough precision since it finds any records in which the different combined search terms appear anywhere within the same record. For example, let's say we were looking for articles on legal approaches to malpractice. If we entered the search: “legal approaches” AND malpractice in a full-text database, we would probably retrieve many articles that mentioned the words legal and malpractice in separate parts of the articles, but which did not really deal with the relationship between the two terms in any way.

Thus we need to be able to limit a search more precisely than just with an AND operator. Fortunately, there are two basic methods for more accurately limiting searches that are commonly used in full-text searching. One way is to use "proximity operators" and another possibility is to use "field searching." Proximity operators are used to search for results in which terms are relatively close to each, while field searching accesses records in which terms are in a specific part of the document. A third logical operator, NOT, is sometimes used to eliminate records that contain a given term or terms.

Creating a Proximity Search

Though logical operators are often used in initial searching, a "proximity operator" is often more efficient and can be used to refine searches. Databases sometimes use slightly different types of proximity operators, but they are most often used to specify how near one term must be to another and, sometimes, in what word order those terms should be. One of the most common proximity operator is W/n (the "n" stands for any number). In some databases, for example, law w/20 malpractice would retrieve all records containing the words "law" and "malpractice" within 20 words of each other. Other databases have proximity limiters that limit search terms to the same sentence or to the same paragraph. Some databases and search engines will have a NEAR operator (for example, law NEAR malpractice ) retrieves documents containing terms within a few words of each other.

Thus proximity operators provide more search precision than an AND operator because the closer two words are to each other in an article, the more apt they are to be related in some way. For example, a search using AND would retrieve articles in which the terms would not be linked closely together and thus the article might only have a surface connection between the terms. A proximity operator, however, could be used to link two terms within the same sentence, which means it would be quite likely that the terms work together in that article to provide connection.

Searching Phrases

In many databases, a special kind of operator needs to be used when doing a keyword search with a search phrase (search terms with multiple words--such as "technical services" or "social parameter.") Databases often require that you choose the operator that allows for a set of words to be searched as a phrase. In search engines on the Web, for example, to search for the phrase: technical services, you must put quotes around the phrase, like this: "information services".

Field Searching

Many databases also provide an option for "field searching.” Field searching helps one refine searches in even more precise ways than mentioned in the previous strategies above. It is a strategy that searches specific fields in all records and tells the database to bypass everything that is irrelevant to your search. Some common fields include subject, title, author, date, publication name, and language. When searching for a specific subject, the most common field to search is the subject or descriptor field. To make these searches work correctly, however, you must use the controlled vocabulary for the database with which you are working and enter those terms into the provided search boxes. Remember it is easy to find controlled language in the thesaurus feature of a database.

Also consider working with the abstract field of a database. This kind of field searching includes more language than just the terms in the controlled vocabulary but is limited to words that summarize the key ideas of the document or article. If a database does not include abstracts, the lead paragraph field is used in a similar manner. The lead paragraph field includes the first paragraph (or particular number of words comparable to a long paragraph) at the beginning of each document.

Using the "NOT" Limiter/Operator

The NOT limiter excludes or eliminates documents that contain terms you do not want in your search. Placing a NOT between two terms instructs the technology you are using to search for all documents that contain the first term but that do NOT contain the second term. For example, if you were looking for articles on legal services that were not provided by lawyers, you could enter the search: "legal services NOT lawyers." The search would retrieve articles dealing with legal services, but articles dealing with lawyers would be eliminated. Use the NOT operator cautiously as it can often eliminate records unexpectedly that you would not actually want eliminated.

Searching When Scholarly Databases are Not Available

Many of you have a great knowledge of working with the intricacies of legal databases such as LexisNexis. This is wonderful as long as you are at an institution that pays for these subscriptions services. For times when you are without these professional databases, Google Scholar provides legal information, but, again, knowing how to access this information is key. Google Scholar and other Google search engines provide many limiters and built-in operators, just like the ones described in the paragraphs above. Here are a few tips for searching Google Scholar with these strategies in mind.

Google Scholar describes its coverage as follows:

Google Scholar allows you to search and read published opinions of US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791. In addition, it includes citations for cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles which allows you to find influential cases (usually older or international) which are not yet online or publicly available. (https://scholar.google.com/intl/en/scholar/help.html#coverage)

On the Google Scholar homepage, underneath the search bar, you will find a “legal documents” check box. Just click that box and enter your search terms. Remember that if you are searching terms together to put those terms in quotation marks. For example, if you want cases from New York, search “New York” so as not to get all results with the words new and york separated from each other. Your results will be from every jurisdiction, so you will want to choose the “Select Courts” link in the left-side navigation. From here, you will be allowed to choose jurisdictions, date ranges, and narrow further to relevance.

Once you have opened the link to the case of interest, you will see other cases hyperlinked within the document, as well as Google Scholar’s version of Shepardizing® at the top. Simply click on the “How cited” link to see the history provided. The number of blue bars beside the case in the history designates how often your case was cited within that document. Also featured is a link to “create an alert,” so you may follow any information as it develops about your case.

As research tools become more and more available to us, the demand for professional interaction with these tools also increases. The more ways you are able to interact with and navigate these tools, the more you will be able to fully engage in the professional demands of the field.

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National Juris University, the graduate division of National Paralegal College, offers the following programs:

Master of Science in Legal Studies
Master of Science in Compliance Law
Master of Science in Taxation