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 Search, 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 however, a search for refugee OR “asylum seeker” OR “displaced persons” returns 956 hits.
|Refugee||Asylum seeker||Displaced persons|
Boolean operators are connective words you place between your keywords to improve your search 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|
Truncation and wildcards
Truncation symbols are used to find alternative word endings. For instance:
Wildcard symbols are used to replace a single character within the word. For instance:
These truncations and wildcards vary between databases. Use the help section in each database to find the specific symbol.
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:
Power of phrase searching
Searching for a phrase will dramatically focus your search results. Rather than finding results for 3 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
Sometimes you may need to use more than one operator in the same search. 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:
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