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Case Finding and Advanced Searching Strategies

Terms & Connectors vs. Natural Language

Nature language searching is like searching on Google and can be useful when exploring a topic completely new to you. For natural language searches, results are retrieved based on a database's algorithm. As you learn more about a topic, you will likely want to use terms and connectors searches because you can exert more control over the results. An advanced search using terms and connectors guarantees that you will retrieve the universe of cases exactly as you have specified. 

For example, if you conduct an advanced search for "first sale doctrine" AND textbook! AND copyright across all federal court cases on either Westlaw or Lexis, this search will guarantee that you will retrieve all federal cases that contain (1) the exact phrase "first sale doctrine"; (2) the term "textbook" or "textbooks"; and (3) the term "copyright" in each case included in the set of results. 

Natural language search examples:

  • endangered species sea turtles
  • classroom photocopies copyright infringement

Terms and connectors search examples (see below for more on what these mean):

  • "Endangered Species Act" AND "sea turtles" /p habitat! 
  • (reproduc! OR photocop!) /s (class! OR educat!) AND "copyright infringement"

Terminology note: Sometimes you'll see terms and connectors searches called "Boolean searches". Technically, Boolean searching just means use of AND, OR, or NOT, but it's sometimes used to refer to all the other search operators too (like the proximity operator /p). But if you're checking the search help for a database (always a good idea!) and their section on Boolean searching just mentions AND, OR, and NOT, check if they have a section with a different title that covers the other search operators. 

Building Your Search

Terms and connector search strings can look complicated (and sometimes they are!), but it's not hard to build useful searches and refine them if you follow a simple process. First, a search term brainstorm: what terms are used in your research question or fact pattern that seem significant, or what terms would you expect to show up in any case discussing this issue? Second, add possible synonyms, root expanders, and quotation marks around phrases to make sure you catch all different forms of your terms. Finally, use search operators to specify relationships between your terms. Here's how that works in practice:

You're researching whether and how making photocopies of copyrighted material for classroom use could be considered copyright infringement. 

Step One: Brainstorm

Photocopies, classroom, and copyright infringement look like the key terms in this prompt.

Step Two: Synonyms, Root Expanders, and Quotation Marks

  • "Photocopy" is pretty specific - a court might also discuss "reproductions" more broadly. Since either of those terms would be useful for us, let's link them together with an "OR" and group them with parentheses: (photocopy OR reproduction). Similarly, with "classroom", let's try "education" too: (classroom OR education).
  • What if the court writes about "reproducing" material but not "reproduction"? Or "educational" material, not "education"? Putting an exclamation point (!) at the end of a string makes sure we're searching for all possible endings. Let's do that with all our terms where it makes sense: (photocop! OR reproduc!) (class! OR educat!). (We'll deal with "copyright infringement" next.)
  • Quotation marks make sure we're searching for a series of words as a phrase - those exact words, in that order - not just as individual words appearing anywhere in the document. We're interested in "copyright infringement" - not copyright by itself and infringement by itself - so we can put that phrase in quotation marks. 
  • So now our search string is: (photocop! OR reproduc!) (class! OR educat!) "copyright infringement" 

Step Three: Connect Your Terms

  • The AND connector requires everything linked by the AND to appear in the search results. These can be individual terms, or groups of synonyms linked by OR and grouped with parentheses, or even entire complex search strings. We need all of these term groups and phrases to be in our search results, so: (photocop! OR reproduc!) AND (class! OR educat!) AND "copyright infringement" 
  • But we're also only interested in photocopies made for classroom use, so those terms will be near each other in any relevant case. To make sure those terms both appear in the search results and are used near each other, use a proximity operator: /p, /s, or /5 (or any other number). Here, let's try /s, so that the terms have to be in the same sentence; we can always broaden that to /p (paragraph) if needed. We get: (photocop! OR reproduc!) /s (class! OR educat!) AND "copyright infringement" 

That's it! There are some changes we could make here - maybe instead of "copyright infringement", we search for (copyright /2 infring!), so we get results that say "infringing upon copyright" too. But you don't need to get it just right on the first try. Instead, take your best shot, and then use your results to determine how you might need to refine your search. Scroll down for some tips on doing that, and a few more useful search operators.

Narrowing Your Search (Too Many Results)

If your search retrieves too many results, you can narrow your search by searching for exact phrases, using AND or NOT, using proximity connectors, or using the ATLEAST function.

  • To search for an exact phrase, put the phrase in quotation marks: e.g., "fair use"
  • To require a term or phrase to be present in your search results, connect it to your search string with AND (in all caps): e.g., "fair use" AND documentary
  • To get only results that do not contain a term or phrase, connect it to your search string with AND NOT (on Westlaw) or BUT NOT (on Lexis): e.g., "fair use" BUT NOT documentary. This is useful when a term is used in more than one legal field, but you're only interested in one of them. 
  • To ensure your terms appear near each other in your results, use a proximity operator between them; /p requires your term to be in the same paragraph, /s requires them to be in the same sentence, and /5 (or any other number) requires them to be within that number of words of each other. E.g., "fair use" /10 documentary. This is useful when you want your terms to be part of the same general discussion. 
  • To ensure your term appears in your results at least a certain number of times, use the ATLEAST operator: e.g., ATLEAST5("fair use") means that any result must have the phrase "fair use" in it at least 5 times. This is useful when you're getting many results that briefly mention your term, but aren't really about it. 

In the chart below, the left column contain operators for use on Lexis, while the right column contain operators for use on Westlaw. This chart can also be downloaded as a PDF at the bottom of this page. 

Broadening Your Search (Too Few Results)

If your search retrieves too few results, you can broaden your search by using OR or root expanders. 

  • To make sure that at least one of a list of terms appears in your results, separate your terms with OR (in all caps). This is especially useful for linking together synonyms or related terms: e.g., documentary OR movie OR film.
  • To search for a root with multiple possible endings, put an ! (exclamation point) at the end of the root: e.g., discrim! will return results containing the terms "discrimination", "discriminatory", "discriminated", "and "discriminating". 

In the chart below, the left column contains operators for use on Lexis, while the right column contains operators for use on Westlaw. This chart can also be downloaded as a PDF at the bottom of this page. 

Additional Resources