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Legal Research: Develop Keywords

Covering the basics of legal research and using HeinOnline


What are keywords? Keywords are the most important words in a research statement or question. They are the words that create significance or meaning.

Why use keywords? Keywords are important in research because they are highly useful to facilitate an online search for information. They open the doors to vast amounts of information. Keywords may also be referred to as “search terms.”

Creating Search Terms for Legal Research


Identifying relevant information for queries:

Parties Involved

Laws Involved

Legal Doctrines


Identifying relevant information for refining results:


Courts/Legislative bodies involved

State or Country

Section Type

How to identify and develop keywords:

Use your research statement or question to identify keywords.

Topic statement: "I think some video games like Call of Duty advertise violence to sell the brand."

Keywords:    video games        Call of Duty      advertise      violence

Keywords can include similar words or opposites. Try to think of some alternate words or use a thesaurus to help.

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Keywords can also include words that more broadly or narrowly define your topic. It can be helpful to create a picture of how concepts or words relate to each other by drawing lines between the keywords or grouping them together. This picture or concept map can be changed or added to as research continues and more about the topic is learned.

Keep In Mind

The goal of your search is to find specific, relevant results. Pay attention to the number of results your search returns. 

Consider these questions:

  1. Given my topic, is this too many/few results?
  2. To get more specific, relevant results, can I make my search terms more/less specific?

In legal research, your often look for very specific issues. Consider the difference between terms like "guns" and "Second Amendment"

  1. Which is going to return more results
  2. In a legal context, which is more likely to provide more specific, relevant results?

NOTE: If using Hein (and many other databases) make sure to put search terms in quotes! This is covered under the HeinOnline page.

How to use keywords:

Use keywords when searching the web:

Use keywords when searching for a book:


Keywords are especially useful when searching library databases for articles. Based off what you are focusing your search on, combine different keywords and plug them into the search boxes.

Try multiple searches and different combinations of keywords to get different results. Some common tricks when searching databases: use quotations to search for the exact phrase (video games versus "video games") or use an asterisk (wild card) to search all forms of a word (using advertis* to search advertise, advertising, or other forms).

To expand a search, try changing the drop-down from AND to OR (these are called Boolean Operators). This is an instance you may want to use a synonym or similar word.

If you are getting too many irrelevant results try changing the drop-down to NOT (another Boolean Operator) to exclude that word or set of words from the results.