All too often , you’ve probably heard your colleagues, professors, representatives, or librarians talking about ‘natural language’ searching versus ‘terms and connectors’ searching in online databases. Maybe you’ve shied away from using terms and connectors in your searches because you’re unfamiliar with all of the tricks and tips.
Don’t get me wrong, natural language searches have their time and place. But when you’re looking for something very specific, even if you don’t know exactly what it is yet, typing a Google-style question into a search box and using post-search filters to try to whittle down the huge number of results can seem overwhelming and almost a waste of effort.
Here’s why: vague searches return vague results. Sure, sometimes you get lucky and what you’re looking for floats to the top of the results list. But more often than not you’ll end up trying to be clever with post-search filters to find a given document. Maybe you don’t have time for that.
Try using a ‘terms and connectors’ search. In WestlawNext, the main search bar allows you to search for databases, not just cases, statutes, articles, etc. When you’re in a specific database, the name of that database will appear in a tab above the main search bar.
In any of WestlawNext’s many databases,click on the “advanced” link immediately to the right of the “Search” button. This will take you to an advanced search form where you can input information into different “fields.” (Depending on the database you’re in, these fields will change.) For example, a Cases database will allow you to search for parties, judges, attorneys, docket number, holding, and more; a Statutes database will allow you to search the caption, preliminary, text, historical notes, etc.
Pro Tip: When you are on the advanced search page for any database, there should be an image of a document above the list of “connectors and expanders.” This will open a PDF document that informs you how Westlaw defines each field with respect to the database that you’re in.
Entering your search terms into the form fields on the advanced search page will automatically build a terms and connectors search in the search bar at the top of the page. The search will begin with “advanced:” followed by abbreviations for the field in which you entered text below, as well as the exact text you entered in that field.
There’s no need to memorize field abbreviations to build a more precise search. Use the advanced search forms and you’re on your way to better search results!
Written by CDS.