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Research Strategy for Academic Writing  

Last Updated: Mar 24, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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This section offers tips for advanced searching in various databases and describes problems with trying to do legal research using free sources online. 


Top Ten Subscription Database Search Tips

1.       Choose the most appropriate databases by reading the brief descriptions of their content. When using Databases@Emory, click on the "i View" icon to the far right of each database title.

2.       Read any database documentation on how to search that database.

3.       Select the "Advanced Search" option whenever possible.

4.       Break down your query into several discrete concepts.

5.       Prepare an alternate list of synonyms, broader and narrower terms, abbreviations, and variants due to hyphenation.

6.       Set limits to narrow your search.

7.       Refine your search terms:

  • Use AND, OR, NOT
  • Search for longer phrases in quotes
  • Use the truncation symbol (* in non-law databases, and ! in Westlaw and Lexis) to retrieve words with variant endings simultaneously
  • Use the wildcard symbol (usually ?) to retrieve words with variant spellings
  • Use proximity operators ADJ, w/2, SAME, AROUND(3), especially when searching full text
  • ~ searches for synonyms in some databases including Google
  • - eliminates a term from the search

8.       Perform segment or field searches:

  • Abstract
  • Title
  • Author

9.       Try using any preferred search terms suggested by the database.

10.   Stop researching at the point of diminishing returns, such as when you begin to find many of the same articles over and over again in different databases.  


Advanced Google

Advanced Search in Google offers many options for narrowing or focusing your search. 

Google Book Search: You can access non-copyrighted works in full-text, and abstracts of others, however, most books are not available to view in full text.

Advanced Google Scholar searches books, peer-reviewed and academic papers and journal articles, and theses and dissertations.

  • Results include subscription databases; use Full Text @ Emory links to access
  • Be sure to add Emory to your Scholar Preferences to reach Emory database and journal holdings
  • Includes a citator to find articles, books, and cases citing your original document

Problems with Legal Research in Free Online Sources

Free sources are good for finding background information about an unfamiliar topic, as well as possible search terms to use later in subscription databases.  You can also use Google and other search engines to find specific documents by name, especially on government websites.  However, most legal research will require using some fee-based databases and/or print sources.  And always use official sources to cite or quote.

Problems include that information in free sources is often outdated and will not alert you that a decision has been modified or overturned, or a statute amended.  Furthermore, unofficial sources interpreting the law may be inaccurate.

In addition, web pages change and disappear, and URLs change as well.  Many legal materials are not yet on the web, including most secondary sources.  Finally, much of the web is invisible to Google and other search engines because of database sites, dynamic pages, and password protected sites. 

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