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Resources for Law Student Research Assistants

Having used Google routinely for personal information needs, you may well wonder whether Google is an effective tool for academic research.  Though not all web content is well-indexed by search engines, and for most legal research questions, at least some sources will be available only commercial databases or print materials, researchers would be remiss in not searching the web for relevant free sources.  Government documents, open-access journal articles, digitized public domain works, news coverage, commentary from experts, and publications from non-profit organizations and advocacy groups are examples of free web content that may be useful for your research.  Consider the below when utilizing search engines such as Google in your research:

  • Thoughtfully evaluate your search results:  Carefully examine your search results and focus on reputable sources.  Do not assume that the first search result returned per the search algorithm is the most relevant for your own research purposes.  Look beyond the first page of search results.
  • Check currency:  Identify the date on which the content you have deemed relevant was published.  Though older content may very well be relevant and useful, supplement research as appropriate to ensure that information discussed in an older page or article has not been impacted by meaningful subsequent developments.  Note that dates provided for web page updates may reflect automated or cosmetic updates.
  • Consider searches beyond natural language:  Most searchers enter keywords in Google's main search bar without operators (i.e. natural language searching), but users can also refine their searches within the main search bar using operators such as OR to search terms in the alternative, quotation marks to search for an exact phrase, or a - symbol to exclude particular terms.  See Refine web searches for more!

See below two additional tools available in Google that may be of use in your research:

  1. Enabling library links in Google Scholar, and 
  2. Utilizing Google's Advanced Search form.

Google Scholar with Library Links

Google Scholar allows users to search not just for journal articles available in open-access web sources, but some full-text articles available in library subscription resources as well.  Users may select from up to 5 additional linked library sources, and adding Vanderbilt Libraries to your library settings will return content from certain journal collections hosted by Vanderbilt amongst your search results, including most content from HeinOnline (the most comprehensive source available for law journals in PDF format) and JSTOR, amongst others.  To enable this feature:

  • Select Library links > search for Vanderbilt > select all VU options > select Save.

Alternatively, you can use the Google Scholar link provided in the library's Database A-Z list.

Advanced Searching in Google

Google's Advanced Search form allows users to improve their search in a number of ways, including:

  • Building refined keyword searches using common search operators,
  • Specifying where in the search result their keywords should appear (ex. in the URL, page title, page text, etc.)
  • Filtering search results to content in a particular language or from a particular region,
  • Searching only recently updated pages.

A few particularly notable Advanced Search features include the ability to search a particular website, a particular domain (ex. .gov., .org, .edu), or for pages with content provided in a particular file type (ex. PDF).