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Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

What Constitutes the "Best" Search?

Regardless of the legal research service you use, certain elements characterize good/effective online searches. Use the information below when working on homework assignments and when creating your own searches.

  • There is no "perfect" search. Different researchers can search an issue differently and still find the same or similar information.
  • The number of results produced by your search is not always evidence of whether or not it is a good or bad search. It is the quality of results that is important.
    • If your search produces only relevant documents it is likely that you are missing some documents.
    • When the search returns mostly relevant documents, but also includes some irrelevant documents, it was most likely broad enough to find the most relevant materials.
  • When creating your initial search, focus on issues and concepts. You do not want to incorporate facts in your initial search.
    • If necessary, the "search within results" features of the various online services can be used for fact searching within the initial result set.

Factors to Consider When Determining/Creating the "Best" Search

The following factors are listed in no particular order of importance, but all of them can contribute towards a "best" search. 

Each database will have a slightly different way of accomplishing each task. Refer to your Basic Legal Research coursepack, or the vendor's documentation, to find out how to set up your search to incorporate these concepts.

  • Compound words: Ensure the compound word is entered in all possible variations (e.g., e-mail, email).
  • Irregular plurals (e.g., child, children / woman, women): techniques include using root expanders, using wildcard character(s), or joining alternate forms with "OR."
  • Word variations/related terms: root expander symbols can help you find terms related to the same issue. For example, searching "medic" followed by the root expander character for the database would find medic, medicine, medical, medicinal, etc.
  • Alternate terms: Many words can be used to describe the same thing or concept. For example, if you are searching for cases involving cars you may need to include multiple terms such as car, auto, automobile, vehicle, truck (and their related plurals) to ensure you find as many relevant documents as possible. 
  • Field/segment/specialized searches: Each database offers a variety of field or segment searches. Consult the database documentation for what options are available, how to set up the search correctly, and how to connect the segment search to the rest of your search string.
  • Phrase searching: Can be useful for finding unique terminology, such as Latin or foreign phrases or spelled out acronyms. However, use with caution because you may exclude relevant documents from your search that contain the same concepts but not your exact phrase. A search on the phrase "procedural due process" would not find a document containing the sentence "the due process violation was procedural in nature."
  • Connectors: be aware of the available connectors in each database. In addition to the usual connectors (AND, OR, NOT) there may be proximity connectors allowing you to search within a range of a given number of words, within a sentence, within a paragraph, and the like.  Also be aware of the order in which each database processes its connectors as this can greatly impact how the search is run.

Tips for Creating Good Searches

  • After you identify the main issues in your fact pattern, think about relevant and related terms to describe each issue.
  • Group related terms and concepts together. Identify the connectors you will need to join each of these groups.
  • Identify terms that need to be in some sort of proximity, e.g., found within the same sentence or within 5 or 10 words of each other.
  • Write the search out, including connectors and proximity connectors. Compare your search to the database's order of processing to ensure the database will perform the search as you intended.
  • Look at all of the terms in the search. Apply truncation/root expansion for word variations, wildcard characters for unusual plurals, etc. as appropriate to take into account any words for which alternates may be appropriate.

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