Skip to Main Content

Workshops in the Library Research Series


Three Initial Questions

Some questions to ask yourself when you kick off a research project:

  • What am I looking for?
  • Where do I look for that?
  • How do I look for that?

What Am I Looking For?

It's useful to begin a research project by asking yourself what you are looking to do. Understanding the following concepts and answering the question "what am I looking for?" will help you figure out where and how you need to look for materials.

Known Item v. Concept Searching

  • Do you need to locate and retrieve some specific materials you already know about? This a known item search.
    • For example, "I need to get a copy of Corbin on Contracts"
  • Do you need to figure out whether there are materials out there that might discuss your topic? This is concept searching.
    • For example, "I want to find any books about baking as a stress relief tool."
  • Whether you're doing known item or concept searching research will affect where and how you search for materials.

Concept Searching: Precision v. Recall 

  • If you are doing concept searching, you may also assess how to balance precision and recall.
  • If you care about precision, you care about the percentage of  relevant results you retrieve. To increase precision, you might have to be ok with missing some relevant items.
  • If you care about recall, you care about how many of the overall number of relevant results are retrieved in your results set. To increase recall, you might have to be ok with combing through irrelevant results.
  • Whether you favor precision or recall will affect where and how you search for materials.

Where Do I Look for What I Want?

Where you look for materials depends on what you want to find.

Resources for locating specific types of materials:

  • Library Catalogs: Records with location for books and journals and links to electronic subscriptions
  • Westlaw/Lexis/Bloomberg: Primary law, secondary sources, etc.
  • Indexes: Scholarly articles in particular academic disciplines
  • Full-text scholarship databases: Hodgepodge of scholarly articles in different fields

Indexes v. Full-Text Databases:

  • Indexes collect the scholarship in a particular academic field. When you search an index, you search against short records that describe the articles.
  • Full-text scholarship databases are often multi-disciplinary and non-comprehensive. When you search a full-text database of scholarly articles, you are search against the complete text of each article in the database.

Dates of coverage:

  • Evaluate the coverage of a particular resource you are using: are materials in the date range you care about available in the resource you're using?
  • For example, Westlaw and Lexis typically have law review articles back to about the 1980s. HeinOnline has older law review articles but sometimes not the most recent. JSTOR often doesn’t have the most recent five years of articles.

The type of resource you search will affect how you search.

How Do I Look for What I Want? The Basics

Once you know what you are looking for and where you are searching, you will likely do some keyword searching. You will need to decide what type of search to perform. 

A natural language search expression strings together keywords and lets the system apply its algorithm to retrieve results.

A terms and connectors (T&C, also often called Boolean) search expression consists of terms (keywords) and connectors to connect the terms. It tells the system exactly what you want it to do.

Natural language searches and T&C searches have different strengths.

How Do I Look for What I Want? Advanced Terms & Connectors Searching

Advanced terms & connectors (T&C) searching uses efficient and effective ways to express your terms (keywords) and connect those terms using connectors. 

How Do I Look for What I Want?: Field Searching

Field searching can be a great way to ensure that your search results are more targeted.  When you search using fields, you are telling the system you only want to search your keywords across specific sections of a document. For example, instead of keyword searching across an entire case opinion, you might limit your search to keywords appearing within just the summary or synopsis of a case (the paragraph that describes what the case is about).  For another example, instead of keyword searching across an entire news article, you might limit your search to keywords appearing in the headline and lead paragraph of each article.

Lexis and Westlaw both allow for field searching - you can either input the field codes directly into your advanced search string, or you can use a guided form accessible from the "Advanced Search" option within specific databases (like Cases or California Statutes & Court Rules). 

Check the following pages for visualizations that indicate the fields you can search when you're looking for cases:

Lexis Field Search for Cases

Westlaw Field Search for Cases

Advanced Searching in Non-WL/Lexis Databases

Some of the main non-Lexis/Westlaw databases you may find yourself researching are HeinOnline and ProQuest, but many of the ideas we are covering in this LibGuide are relevant across databases.

For example, the most common character you will use for truncation is an asterisk (*).  Also, instead of /# for proximity operators, you may see NEAR/# or N#.

How do you keep track of all of these different rules?  The best way is to always check the individual database you are searching.  For example, on Hein, click on “Search Help” under the main search bar, which will produce a list of operators and their functions.  On other databases, look for an information symbol (the letter i with a circle around it) or Help -  or anything else that sounds like it may give you search syntax.  When you cannot find anything, try a web search for [database name] proximity operator.  [If you web search [database name] advanced search operators, you might just end up on the database’s advanced search screen, rather than a description of how to conduct advanced searching.]

While it’s great to use non-Lexis/Westlaw options when available, keep in mind that many of the more advanced search options in Lexis/Westlaw are not offered by other databases.

When in doubt about a particular database’s search rules, contact a librarian!  You can also click the links below for database-specific information.