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Law Guide: Information Search Skills

This guide is designed to help you start your legal and law library research.

Welcome to the Searching for Information Guide

This guide provides information and support that will help you develop skills for searching for information.

Searching for information includes:

  • Planning your search
  • Identifying useful keywords
  • Making decisions about where you plan to look for information
  • Making the best use out of a range of resources

Search Strategies

Boolean Operators

When you use and enter certain words into your keyword search known as Boolean operators, you are telling the computer exactly how to perform a search- one that can be tailored to your specific needs.

The most commonly used Boolean operators are: AND, OR, and NOT.

Tip: it is good practice to capitalise search operators as some databases require this.

  • Use OR between search words to broaden your search by finding articles containing one or more words or phrases. This is the operator you will use most often
  • Use AND in between search words to narrow your search by finding articles containing both words only. This operator tends to be the default operator for linking the search boxes together
  • Use NOT to exclude words e.g. autism NOT children finds only articles on autism that do not relate to children.

Truncation (Stem Searching) & Wild Card Searching

    The wild card is usually represented by a question mark (?) which replaces one character only e.g. ne?t will find all citations containing neat, nest or next (but not net because one character must be replaced).

    Truncation is usually represented by an asterisk (*) which replaces any number of characters. Enter the root of a word and replace the ending with a *

  • Child* finds child, children, childhood, childish etc.
  • Educat* finds educate, educates, educating, education, educational, etc.
  • Wom*n    finds woman or women (not all databases support this placing of *)

Take care not to truncate too soon e.g. Comp* finds not only computers and computing, but also company, companies, component, comparison etc.

Warning Try not to overuse truncation as you may overload the search engine and return an error message! Some databases will only allow limited use of the * symbol.

Proximity Searching

Proximity searching allows you to locate one word within a certain distance of another. The symbols generally used in this type of search are w and n.

The w represents the word "with(in)" and the n represents the word "near." This type of search is not available in all databases.

Near Operator (Nx) — finds words within x number of words from each other, regardless of the order in which they occur.

Example: television n2 violence would find "television violence" or "violence on television," but not "television may be the culprit in recent high school violence."

Within Operator (Wx) — finds words within x number of words from each other, in the order they are entered in the search.

Example: Winston w2 Churchill would find Winston Churchill or Winston S. Churchill, but would not find Churchill Winston.

Searching for Phrases or “Exact Matches”

If you want to search for a term, phrase, or exact match, you will need to use quotation marks around the words.  This will narrow your results down.  For example, a search of "social work" rather than social work will exclude results where the terms "social" and "work" appear disconnected from each other. 

  • To search for a specific phrase, use quotation marks e.g. “comic book illustration”. However this would exclude more general articles on illustrating comics.
  • “Pain management”may not find the articles that mention managing pain or management of pain.

Entering your Search Words

  • Tip! Firstly run your search without selecting a search field. This will find articles that mention your words anywhere in the citation e.g. in the title, abstract and subject headings.
  • You could then refine again to words in abstract (a short paragraph overviewing the article – be careful here as not all citations include an abstract).
  • To focus further, limit for words in title (= title of article).
  • If you are looking for obscure words unlikely to be mentioned in the citation search for words in text (=full-text of article).

Refining Your Search

Too many results? Try focusing the search field to words in title.

Too few results? Try broadening your scope by searching for words within the full-text of the articles. This is particularly useful if you are looking for a more obscure word or phrase.

Improving Your Search Results

  • Is your spelling is correct? Are there any typing errors?
  • Check you have applied truncation correctly e.g. comput* (not comp*)for computing to avoid finding information on companies
  • Have you the AND (narrows) and OR (broadens) correctly?
  • Try finding more synonyms, e.g. adolescents for teenagers, or antonyms e.g. success instead of failure
  • Try broadening your search words e.g. use education instead of teaching

Search Example: Is there a link between childrens’ diet and behaviour?

 

diet* OR nutrition* OR food* OR meal* OR eat*

Select a search field

AND

child* OR infan* OR “early years”

Select a search field

AND

behaviour* OR behavior*

Select a search field

Or, if there is only one search box available:

(diet* OR nutrition* OR food* OR meal* OR eat*) AND (child* OR infan* OR “early years”) AND (behaviour* OR behavior*)

  • Note that AND takes precedence over OR
  • Use brackets if you are using synonyms or alternative words for a single concept.

Search Example: Explore the reasons why university students are becoming more stressed

 

stress* OR burnout OR “burn out” OR pressur*

Select a search field

AND

student* OR undergraduate* OR postgraduate*

Select a search field

AND

universit* OR “higher education”

Select a search field

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Planning your search

Before you begin your search, it's a good idea to consider the following:

  • Planning. Take time to understand your research topic and plan your search strategy to help you find the best journal articles to support your research and learning.
  • Google. Don’t rely on Google for the best search results. Google is only useful for a quick overview of a subject to find out the key facts, ideas, theories, jargon words, acronyms etc.
  • uKwazi. This search tool is recommended for quick and easy one-stop searching for all your e-resource needs, with direct linking to online journal articles.

In order to plan your search, it's a good idea to consider the following:

Type of assessment

Assessments can vary from a short 5 minute presentation to a technical report, literature review, or thesis.

The type of assignment you are asked to produce will have a direct effect on:

  • how much information you need
  • the type of information you need
  • where you will find the information you need


How much information do you need?

 Consider:

  • how many words you are expected to write
  • weighting for the module
  • marks allocated to this assignment within the module
  • type of assignment
 Some assignment instructions are more detailed than others.  It you're unsure of what you're supposed to do, check with your lecturer or module leader.
 


Where will you find your information?

 Each information source contains different types of information. 

 Working out which to use before you start looking will save a lot of time. 

 

Understanding your assignment question is an important first step in getting started with planning keywords to use for your search.  It may sound simple, but it is crucial that you understand your assignment questions- misinterpreting what the question is asking you to do will waste time as you may use different search terms based on the question. 

Consider the following:

  • Read your assignment and ask yourself what you are specifically being asked to do
  • Start thinking about your question as soon as you receive it.  The more time you allow yourself to examine what you are being asked to do and plan your search strategy, the more likely you are to recognise any challenges you may encounter or skills you need to build for a successful search
  • Read your assignment criteria

 

Working out your main themes helps you to define your topic and work out exactly what your tutor is asking you to do, rather than just generally discussing the subject.

Once you've finished doing your background reading, perhaps from recommended books on your reading list, or your lecture notes, consider what you know.

One way of doing this would be to use a Mind Map.  Mapping your ideas sharpens the focus of your assignment and helps you to choose search terms and keywords when you begin searching for information.  It can also reveal gaps in your knowledge and areas where you need to do more background reading.

Try not to spend too much time organising the material.  It is more important to record all your ideas.

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Juta Law Report Search Example

Using Keywords

After thinking about the topic area you are planning to search and deciding what keywords may be useful, it is also a good idea to find alternative search words.

Alternative search words can be found by:

  • Broadening your search results in order to try to find alternative search words for each key concept and idea. 
  • Using an online thesaurus  or, alternatively, browsing the subject headings list of the database you are searching.
  • Doing a Google definition search (e.g. enter in the Google search box define body language or define communication)

  Synonyms – “like” words

Firstly try using the most obvious search words. Then try to think of synonyms or “like” words that might also be used e.g.

 Children – try also child, infants, toddlers, pre-school or “early years”

 Change – try also transitions, development, trends , emerging, shakeup, reform, modification, innovation, progress etc.

  Antonyms – “opposite” words

Occasionally you will find useful information by using search words that have opposite meaning s eg:

  • safetymight be found under risk, hazard, danger etc.
  • business failures might be found under success in business