4 Searching Strategies and Tips

Search strategy

Before you start searching for information, take some time to think about the legal situation or scenario and plan your search strategy. There is a vast amount of primary and secondary material available across multiple databases, catalogues, and print publications. It is important to develop a systematic approach to your research.

Before you begin searching, consider the following questions:

  • What do you wish to find (journal articles, commentary, law reform material)?
  • Which resources will you need to search (databases, library catalogues, Library Guides)?
  • Are there applicable search parameters (time period or jurisdiction)?
  • What search terms will you need to use (keywords, phrases, and synonyms)?

Keywords and phrases

As part of planning your search strategy, you will need to think of keywords and phrases to help you find relevant information. Remember, you are researching the legal issues, not the facts of the scenario, so select keywords and phrases that are relevant to the legal issues of the case. Brainstorm related words, subject terms, synonyms, and phrases. The more care and thought you put into your search strategies, the more relevant your results will be.

Imagine you are searching for journal articles on the topic of refugees. A keyword search for refugee returns 919 hits. After expanding your search and utilising other possible keywords and phrases, a search for refugee OR “asylum seeker” OR “displaced persons” returns 956 hits.

Table 1: Keywords and synonyms
Keyword Synonym Related term
Refugee Asylum seeker Displaced persons

Search operators

Boolean operators

Boolean operators are connective words you place between your keywords to improve your search results.

Table 2: Using Boolean operators to connect keywords
Boolean operator Example Results
AND negligent AND conduct This search will find both words
OR teenager OR youth This search will find either word
NOT remedy NOT damages This search will find the first word but not the second word

Truncation and wildcards

Truncation symbols are used to find alternative word endings. For instance:

placing a truncation symbol (such as * or !) after law* retrieves law, laws, lawyer, lawless, lawlessness

Wildcard symbols are used to replace a single character within the word. For instance:

organi?ation retrieves organisation or organization.

These truncation and wildcard symbols vary between databases. Use the help section in each database to find the specific symbol.

Proximity operators

Proximity operators enable you to define how closely your search terms will be found in relation to one another. Proximity searching is commonly used in legal research to improve the relevancy of results, as most legal databases perform searches across lengthy documents (such as entire journal articles or full text judgments).  For instance:

contributory w/s negligence retrieves documents with both words appearing within the same sentence

Phrase searching

Searching for a phrase using “double quotation marks” will dramatically focus your search results. Rather than finding results for three ungrouped words, the search engine will return results for the phrase.

This example search in Google Scholar demonstrates the power of phrase searching:

Illegal wildlife trade = 190,000 results

“Illegal wildlife trade” = 10,200 results

Combining operators

Sometimes you may need to use more than one operator in the same search. When you use more than one type of operator in the same search, you can use brackets to ‘nest’ the terms so the database processes the different parts of the search in the correct order. An example is if you wanted to find material on the sentencing of young people. By adding more operators, the following search string will capture the most relevant records in one search:

sentenc! AND (teenager OR youth OR adolescent)

By using operators and brackets to nest and connect synonyms, you can ensure that you receive the most relevant results.

The resource below is provided as a space for you to practice creating a search strategy





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Legal Research Skills: An Australian Law Guide: 2024 JCU Edition Copyright © 2024 by James Cook University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.