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INTO - How to research legal topics: How To Search


Identifying Keywords Video

Combining Keywords Video

Self Test Activity

When you are searching online to find research materials you need to input effective searches so that you find relevant materials. It is useful to think of this as a three step process:

  1. Identify your search terms
  2. Combine your Search terms
  3. Use search techniques to enhance your search

This process works for all forms of online searching. It can be used when searching the internet as well as for library search catalogues and research databases.

1. Identify your search terms

Before you start searching, think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material.  You want to avoid finding so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

You may find it useful to try brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords.

Be prepared to add/amend search terms as you begin searching. As you begin finding materials you may discover new subject terms and concepts that you want to explore further. 

This example illustrates how you might

1. pick out key terms from a research topic

2 break them down into keywords, alternative terms, variations and subject specific terminology that can be used for searching

2. Combine your search terms

It is possible to use a number of different keywords or search terms in a single search, by using operators. 

Operators link your search terms and define the relationship between them.

This enables more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned.

It also saves you time as you don't have to carry out numerous similar searches where just one or two search terms are changed each time.


Use AND to narrow your search

All your search terms must appear 

Use OR to broaden your search

Any or all of your search terms may appear

Use NOT to narrow your search.

Use it to ignore results that contain particular words




employment AND equal pay


teenagers OR adolescents


​defence NOT loss of control



                           Fig. 1                                                                                                                           Fig. 2

ANDORNOT are known as Boolean operators and can be used across all sorts of online search services such as library catalogues, research databases and for internet searching using search engines such as Google.

You can type these operators in between your search terms (Fig. 1) or you can use the drop down options  which appear in many databases (Fig. 2). Look at the help pages on the database you want to use for specific guidance.   

3. Use search techniques to improve your search

You can use search techniques to help improve your searching. By applying these techniques, you can increase or reduce your search results as required, making it easier to access to the right materials. 

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.

The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.

The asterisk * symbol is most commonly used for truncation. However, check out the help screens as  !, ?, or # may also be used.

For example:

legal* will find legal, legally, legalise, legalize, legality etc.

Global* will find global, globalise, globalize, globalisation, globalization etc.

Use it with care to avoid finding too many alternatives.

For more, see the Search tips guide.

Phrase searching is the most limiting technique as it is used to specify that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify.

Phrase searching is commonly achieved by surrounding your phrase with quotation marks.

Always check the Database Help screens, as some databases may use different symbols.

Phrase searching examples:

"illegal detention"

"universal human rights"


For more, see the Search tips guide.

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