Secondary sources

2. Strategies and tips

Search strategy

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 is it that 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 that will 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 that you put into your search strategies the more relevant your results will be.

You are searching for journal articles on the topic of refugees. A keyword search for refugee returns 919 hits. After utilising other possible keywords and phrases, however, a search for refugee OR "asylum seeker" OR "displaced persons" returns 956 hits. 

Keyword Synonym Related term
Refugee Asylum seeker Displaced persons

Boolean operators

Boolean operators are connective words you place between your keywords to improve your search results. 

Boolean operator Example 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, placing a symbol law* retrieves law, laws, lawyer, lawless, lawlessness. Wildcard symbols are used to replace a single character within the word. For instance: organi?ation retrieves organisation or organization.

Platform Truncation Wildcard
Lexis Advance ! ?
Westlaw ! *
HeinOnline * ?
AGIS Plus Text * ?
CCH IntelliConnect * ?
Library Search * ?

Proximity operators

Proximity operators enable you to define how closely your search terms will be found in relation to one another. For instance: contributory w/s negligence will retrieve documents with both words appearing within the same sentence.

Type Lexis Advance Westlaw HeinOnline
within sentence w/s  /s w/s
within paragraph w/p /p w/p
phrase searching "duty of care" "duty of care" "duty of care"

More information on using keywords can be found in Searching in databases.

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 = 93,700 results
  • “Illegal wildlife trade” = 4,370 results

Combining operators 

Sometimes you may need to use more than one operator in the same search. An example of this is if you wanted to find material on sentencing of young people. By adding more operators the following search string will capture most relevant records in one search: sentenc! AND (teenager OR youth OR adolescent). By using operators to connect synonyms, you can ensure that you achieve the most relevant results.

Which operator — AND or OR — would receive more results if placed between criminal and liability in a search?
    Check your answer