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Law Library

Background Factual Research Online: Database Searching

Database Design

Databases are built on data arranged in fields, much like a spreadsheet, with various fields linked together based on shared factors. Each database is made up of many sub-sets or collections of data. For example: a legal database will likely include collections of cases, statutes, law reviews, and so on. Understanding how a database is constructed can make searching more effective, and make it easier to filter results for relevancy.

Results Filters

Most databases include extensive options to filter results for relevancy. This may include filtering results by date, jurisdiction, subject, and other key areas. Using filters to narrow the results pool means that relevant items are more likely to become visible rather than being hidden in a flood of results.

Search Technology

Most databases allow for natural language searching similar to search engines like Google, however, advanced search options allow you to tailor your search to produce more relevant results. In addition to selecting strong keywords, many databases also allow you to construct more sophisticated searches. Boolean operators allow you to combine keywords precisely, while other search commands allow you to search for an entire phrase or variations on a keyword.

Constructing Searches: Connectors & Wildcards

Boolean Operators
Description Westlaw Lexis Bloomberg Examples

results with both terms

&, and and* and assault & battery (W), assault and battery (W, L, B)
results with either term or, space b/t words or** or assault or battery (W, L, B), assault battery (W)

exclude term

%, but not and not and not, but not assault % battery (W), assault but not battery (W, B), assault and not battery (L, B)

* The Lexis search algorithm will recognize certain search strings as phrases, rather than a search command. Thus 'assault and battery' is treated as a phrase in Lexis, rather than a command to search for results with both the words 'assault' and 'battery,' so you get results with 'assault and battery,' 'assault,' and 'battery.'

** The Lexis search algorithm will recognize a space between words as an 'or' only when no other connectors are used in the search; so 'tort and assault battery' would bring back different results than 'tort assault battery.'

Proximity Search Commands
Description Westlaw Lexis Bloomberg Examples
within the same sentence /s, w/s w/sent, w/s, /s* s/, /s, /sent assault /s battery (W, L, B), assault w/s battery (W, L), assault w/sent battery (L, B), assault s/ battery (B)
within the same paragraph /p, w/p w/para, w/p, /p* p/, /p, /para assault /p battery, (W, L, B), assaulty w/p battery (W, L), assault w/para battery (L, B), assault p/ battery (B)
within n words /n near/n /n, w/n assault /5 battery (W, B), assault near/5 battery (L), assault w/5 battery (B)
within n words and in designated order +n pre/n +n, pre/n assault +7 battery (W, B), assault pre/5 battery (L, B)
phrase searching within quotes within quotes within quotes, space between words "collateral estoppel" (W, L, B), collateral estoppel (B)
grouping terms within parentheses within parentheses within parantheses (assault and battery) /s (dog and bite)
term frequency in results atleastn [doesn't support] atln, atleastn atleast5(assault) (W, B), atl5(assault) (B)

* The sentence and paragraph parameters in Lexis are treated numerically. Thus, any of the sentence proximity commands are treated as near/15, and any of the paragraph proximity commands are treated as near/50.

Word Variants
Description Westlaw Lexis Bloomberg Examples
root expander ! !, * ! constitut! finds results with  constitute, constituting, constituted, constitution, constitutions, constitutional, etc. (W, L, B); constitut* does the same (L)
single character variation * *, ? * wom*n brings back results with woman and women (W, L, B); wom?n does the same (L)
singular v. plural forms searched automatically regular plurals searched automatically must check the "include word variations" box on search page automatic (W, L*), check the box in B
hyphenated terms searching as a hyphenated will automatically search any form searching as a hyphenated will automatically search any form must search both hyphenated and unhyphenated, connected by 'or' wi-fi will automatically search for wi-fi and wifi (W, L), must search both in B ('wi-fi' or wifi')

* Lexis automatically searches for plurals indicated by an -s (dogs, cats), but irregular plurals (children, women) have to be searched separately (ex: 'woman or women')

(Inspiration for these tables came from a research guide at Drake Law.)

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