Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Constructing your search query more effectively

Last week Artie gave us some tips on searching legal databases more efficiently using terms and connectors. Now, let's look at developing a search query by identifying an issue statement and the main concepts before you even start typing something into the search box. By taking a few extra minutes before you start your search, you will get more relevant results.

Did you realize you are already developing a search query? When you start typing in keywords or phrases into the search box, you are thinking about what you want to find. Your query is what you typed in before you hit enter to perform the search. Even though your results may appear relevant, do you know that you found the information you need? Will you remember what you searched in a few minutes when you try and revise your query after finding other terms used by legislators, judges, and other researchers?

The following are some tips on how to develop and revise that query for better search results.

1.         Write down as much information about your research topic as possible. Consider:

What is the issue you are researching/legal question being answered?
What jurisdiction is relevant?
What type of law are you looking for?
What secondary sources do you investigate?
What specific source will you select to find the information?
What questions do you have?
What do you know? What don’t you know?

Then summarize your research topic in one sentence, wording it as a question. Make sure your topic can answer at least three of the following questions: who, what, when, where, why or how.

2.         Identify the main concepts of your research question. Main concepts in “Is insanity a defense for a defendant who is addicted to drugs and who has been arrested and charged with possession of drugs? are: possession and drugs and addict and insanity.  

3.         Using the concepts you identified, think of as many synonyms for those words as you can- both broad and narrow. Make certain you are using appropriate legal terminology. Write them down. I use the following, sometimes even just scribbled on my legal pad, to organize the concepts and synonyms:


One of our main concepts in our research question is drugs. We might want to add narcotics, and prescriptions, medication to our search query. Remember to use terms and connectors   described in last week’s blog, along with truncation. Descriptions of how to use these are found here: WestlawLexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law

4.         To avoid duplicate searches and ensure you can find your resource again, keep track of your searches. Be sure to track of database names, specific search query and filter limitations, and source citations of relevant material. 

This information will help you track your progress and successes as well as help you identify ways you can revise your search. If you do not keep track, this information is lost! Take advantage of folder systems on WestlawNext. Lexis, or Bloomberg, or digital workspace platforms like Zotero or Evernote to keep track of your searches and annotate your research. By keeping your research query notes organized, they are available you can refer back to throughout the research project.

Develop your search query before you even put your fingers on the keyboard and you will be amazed at the results! Don't forget you can stop by the reference desk and we will help you!

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