Computer Assisted Legal Research: Search Basics

By Griffith, Cary | Information Today, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Computer Assisted Legal Research: Search Basics


Griffith, Cary, Information Today


Computer Assisted Legal Research: Search Basics

All computer assisted legal research (CALR) services contain various kinds of search features. Some contain very powerful, complex search capabilities, while others offer only one or two methods for searching their online service or CD-ROM disc.

It is generally true that all CALR services offer search capabilities that fall within one or more of a few basic CALR search types. The search types, or features common to many of these CALR services include the following:

* Free text searching

* Proximity searching

* Field searching

* Controlled Vocabulary Searching

* Hypertext

If prospective CALR users understand these five basic search types, they have a framework from which to evaluate, study and learn how to use virtually any CALR product (or, for that matter, any computer assisted research product) that is currently available.

Free Text Searching

Free text searching is probably the most common form of computer assisted research performed today. Many CALR services index the entire text of their records. The records or documents available through a CALR service might be the full-text of state and/or federal case law, a databank record containing basic statistical information, or a bibliographic record. Free text searching means that the indexed text of database records can be searched for any terms using whatever search capabilities (Boolean logic, proximity searches, etc.) the service provides.

Some databases only index search phrases contained in specific fields of database records. Others only index one particular field, or a few specific fields, and leave the bulk of the rest of the record unavailable for searching. The non-indexed portions of records are usually displayed, but true free text searching on these databases is unavailable, or restricted to only certain parts of each database record.

For example, a researcher wants to find recent law review articles discussing the liability of a parent corporation for hazardous substances generated by one of its subsidiaries. The database identified in which to conduct the search indexes the full-text of article titles and publication dates. The bibliographic records of the database also contain fields that list subject terms, jurisdictional information, the name of the journal in which the article appears, and several other fields of information. In this fictitious database the only indexed fields are the title and the publication date fields.

The basic ideas of the researcher's search might be stated: parent AND liability AND hazardous substance AND 1990. There are other terms and phrases that come to mind, but for our purposes we are only relating some general search concepts.

When the preceding search phrase is entered into this fictitious database, the search will only be examining the full-text of article titles, and the publication year. Since every term of the title is indexed, it could be said that the title and publication year are free text searchable; meaning that we can search the title, and the publication year fields for any combination of terms.

Since the subject terms and other fields of this database are not indexed, we cannot search them in a free text mode. Consequently, this fictitious database is fairly restrictive in the search capabilities available to its users.

Proximity Searching

Many of the more sophisticated CALR services offer proximity searching. Proximity searching gives researchers the ability to indicate the order in which they want their search terms to appear. In the preceding search example (potential liability of a parent corporation for hazardous substances produced by its subsidiaries) proximity search capabilities would allow a researcher to indicate the relative location of the search terms being used.

For example, if a researcher were trying to find cases that discuss parent liability, they would conduct their research in a database that contained case law. …

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