How To Research Topicality: Suggested Sources and Search Terms

Topicality research is difficult. Because topicality is a semantic issue, the type of supporting evidence required is different than the evidence debaters typically offer in support of their other positions.

For one thing, it is often from “reference” sources: dictionaries, encyclopedias, “explainer” websites and articles, background sections in journal articles, etc. These are not good sources of evidence for most other debate arguments; their purpose is generally to document “facts,” not to argue in favor of a particular position or perspective. For the same reason, these reference sources also tend to describe the context of a controversy without taking a position on it.

Topicality research also requires a different approach to search terms. Because topicality evidence needs to be highly specific to particular words and phrases, researchers need to be able to “drill down” and narrow their results in order to find useful cards. When researching most other issues, this approach would be unhelpful; extremely specific, targeted searches might miss the best articles on an issue, especially if the researcher hadn’t yet developed enough familiarity with the issue to figure out how to design their search. And when researching most other arguments, debaters tend to have a more open-ended idea about what might be useful. When crafting an affirmative case or a negative disadvantage, for example, researchers should usually “let the literature lead the way.” Instead of deciding exactly what the eventual argument will “look like” before beginning to research it, this approach uses the research process to guide the development of the best version of the argument.

Finally, topicality research is often tedious. Many of the best sources of topicality evidence are dense: court cases (and related filings like amicus briefs), specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias, research reports, the “boring” parts of books and law review articles, etc. While there are ways to expedite topicality research, it often requires a lot of patience; the best evidence is sometimes found only after slogging through hundreds (and hundreds) of useless search results.

Because it is so difficult, most debaters tend to “outsource” their topicality research to others. A few coaches and summer institute instructors tend to cut the bulk of the topicality cards that are read during the course of a season, with everyone else drawing upon their files to find topicality evidence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this arrangement, but I still think it is valuable for debaters to learn how to research topicality. As the season progresses, teams with “better” topicality evidence can achieve a significant competitive advantage over teams that only rely on camp evidence. “Better” in this context means more “recent” (not the “stock” cards from camp files), more specific to the year’s prominent topicality controversies (especially as they have developed after summer institutes), and more fully-developed with “supporting” evidence (the cards that describe case lists, define “core of the topic” issues, litigate the predictability and “precision” of contested scholarly definitions, etc.).

To help students improve their topicality research, this post will provide a list of recommended sources and search terms. While this is by no means a comprehensive guide to topicality research, my goal is to provide actionable advice that students can immediately incorporate into their research process.


Recommended Sources

Topicality evidence can be found in a wide variety of sources. Sometimes, the best way to find topicality evidence is to come across it incidentally while researching other issues. Sources for topicality evidence are in many ways the same as for any debate argument.

But when the goal is only topicality research — whether crafting or improving a negative topicality argument or answering one — a few sources tend to stand out as particularly valuable.

The first is the Congressional Research Service. CRS is Congress’s non-partisan think tank. Its staff members prepare reports for members of Congress on a wide variety of subjects. When I am learning about a new policy issue, my first step is always to find out what CRS reports are available about it. They tend to provide excellent background information about policy areas, often including summaries of current policies and explanations of proposed policy changes. Because the CRS is non-partisan, they do not advocate particular policies; instead, they attempt to provide Congress with useful summaries to assist them in their deliberations.

Until recently, CRS reports were only made publicly available on an ad hoc basis. Now, they are (almost) all accessible from two places: the official CRS site at congress.gov and the unofficial EveryCRSReport.com (a project of Demand Progress). One tip: sometimes CRS reports are published (especially on EveryCRSReport.com) with the name of the author redacted. If you find a redacted report, search for the title of the report; you can often find an unredacted version, typically (but not always) on fas.org.

The reason that CRS reports are excellent sources of topicality evidence is because they often include definitions and explanations of how current policies work. They also summarize the “state of the debate” about policy controversies, and these sections can often be used to support case lists and “core of the topic” arguments. You can do keyword searches in the whole CRS database, but I typically prefer to start by finding the most relevant reports and skimming through them. In addition to finding valuable evidence, this tends to help me figure out where to go next as I continue my research.

The second recommended source is Nexis Uni, formerly called Lexis-Nexis. Like other paid subscription services, you will only be able to access Nexis if you have a university library affiliation. While Nexis includes many useful sources in its various databases, the two most useful for topicality are “cases” and “law reviews.”

“Cases” allows you to keyword search state and federal court cases, statutes, and regulations. While much of this is available elsewhere, Nexis collects it all into a single database and allows you to conduct more powerful searches across all of it at once. Some of the best topicality cards come from court cases that litigate the meaning of particular words and phrases; the Bradwood terminal case about “protection” is a good example.

“Law reviews” includes a wide range of law reviews and legal journals. These are also excellent sources of topicality evidence; law professors and legal scholars often argue about the way that words and phrases were interpreted by courts, and even run-of-the-mill articles tend to define their terms.

The third recommended source is Hein Online, a similar database to Nexis. Students and coaches who are members of the National Speech and Debate Association have complimentary access to Hein, a resource that is otherwise only available via an expensive subscription.

Like Nexis, the most useful parts of Hein for topicality research are “Case Law” and the “Law Journal Library.” While there is some overlap between Nexis and Hein, some sources are only available in one or the other. Hein has similarly powerful search features that allow you to craft advanced Boolean searches to find exactly what you’re looking for.

The fourth recommendation is GovInfo, a free alternative to parts of Nexis and Hein that allows users to search court opinions, the U.S. Code, and other statutes. While Nexis and Hein have more advanced search features, GovInfo is sometimes the simplest way to search the U.S. Code — and it is freely available.  

Along the same lines, the fifth recommendation is Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute. This is another free resource that allows users to search court cases and federal laws. Its interface is much less powerful than Nexis’s and Hein’s, but it is another useful alternative for those that do not have access to those databases.

Whether searching via Nexis or Hein or GovInfo or the LII, debaters can find useful topicality evidence in court decisions and statutes that define terms. Once you find a relevant statute or case, try searching for it by name in each of these databases; sometimes, you will find more useful evidence in other cases or law review articles that reference it. (This process is how I found the topicality “protection” evidence shared in this post.)

The sixth recommendation is topic-related encyclopedias. When I begin researching a new topic, one of the first things I do is try to find the most relevant encyclopedia about its policy area. Publishers like Routledge, SAGE, and Gale produce a lot of these handbooks and encyclopedias every year, and they are often assigned as textbooks in college classes.

If you have access to a university library, you will probably find one or more “reference library”-type databases that provide electronic access to a wide range of encyclopedias and handbooks; SAGE Reference is a good example. Type some keywords from the resolution into one of these databases and see what you find; I have almost always been able to find at least one good encyclopedia about each topic. On the water topic, for example, Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Water Politics and Policy in the United States is a great resource; I found a cheap used copy online.

Encyclopedias are particularly useful for topicality research because they typically include glossaries with definitions of key terms, background summaries about issues related to the topic, and references to additional sources and authors for further research.

The seventh recommendation is dictionaries. This is an obvious place to look for topicality evidence, and there are many free online dictionaries that you can use to find basic definitions of the words in the resolution. If you have access to a university library, I recommend using the subscription version of the Oxford English Dictionary; it often includes the “best” dictionary definitions for topicality.

While OED is my preferred dictionary, it is important to search several dictionaries when doing your topicality searches. Sometimes, one dictionary’s entry will differ from the others in ways that are relevant for topicality.

The eighth recommendation is Google Scholar. It allows you to search “scholarly sources” using Google’s advanced search functions.

If you have access to a university library, you can link it to Google Scholar so that it provides the direct university database links to articles that are otherwise behind paywalls. Even if you don’t have university library access, many articles on Scholar are freely available on university websites, authors’ personal sites, SSRN, or other places.

Scholar indexes many high-quality sources (like law reviews) that you can also find with Nexis or Hein, but it also includes sources that might not be available from those databases. If you find a good article, one helpful feature of Scholar is the ability to see what other sources cite it. If you find a relatively authoritative topicality book or article, this can be a great way to find other articles that cite that definition.

In addition to Google Scholar, you can find topicality evidence in a wide range of journal databases that you will need a university library affiliation to access. Scholar indexes a lot of the articles that you’ll find in these databases, but it doesn’t include everything. After you exhaust your Scholar search, you can try the same keyword searches on JSTOR, ScienceDirect, Project Muse, etc.

The ninth recommendation is Google Books. This is a great, free resource, but many books that it indexes are partially or completely unavailable. Still, it allows users to conduct full text searches within books. Because they tend to go into more depth about a single issue than an article, books are often great sources of topicality evidence.

One important tip for using Google Books is to use it as a tool to find books that you will then obtain access to elsewhere — either via a university or public library, an e-book subscription service, the Amazon “Look Inside!” preview, or by purchasing the book (either as an e-book or a physical book). While Google Books indexes some books that are nearly impossible to track down, many are obtainable if you put in the effort. If you know there’s a great card waiting to be cut if you can find the book, that effort can be worthwhile.  

The tenth and final recommendation is “regular” Google. Its advanced search features allow you to conduct targeted topicality searches, something I’ll explain below.

While many people’s first instinct is probably to start (and perhaps end) their topicality research with Google, it won’t turn up some of the most valuable topicality cards. For that, you’ll need to use some of the other sources I’ve recommended above.


Recommended Search Terms

As mentioned above, direct and specific keyword searches are more valuable when researching topicality than when researching most other issues. The following are a few suggested search terms for finding topicality evidence about a particular word or phrase. In each of these search strings, x is the term you are trying to research.

  • “the term x
  • “the phrase x
  • “the word x
  • x is defined” or “x are defined”
  • x can be defined”
  • x may be defined”
  • x can include”
  • x may include”
  • “define x
  • “defined x
  • “definition of x
  • x means” or “x mean”
  • “meaning of x”

Proximity searches can also be quite effective. On Google, the syntax is keyword1 AROUND(#) keyword2 where # is the maximum number of words between the two keywords. When researching topicality, here are a few suggested proximity searches; again, x is the term you are trying to research.

  • x AROUND(25) “term of art”
  • x AROUND(25) “can be defined”
  • x AROUND(25) “in ordinary dictionaries”
  • x AROUND(25) “ordinary meaning”
  • x AROUND(25) “ordinary definition”
  • x AROUND(25) “plain meaning”
  • x AROUND(25) “dictionary definition”
  • x AROUND(25) “definition of the word”
  • x AROUND(25) “fixed meaning”
  • x AROUND(25) “precise meaning”
  • x AROUND(25) “technical term”

You should experiment with different proximity numbers. I suggest starting with something small (5 or 10) and then working up to a larger number (25, 50, 100) as you exhaust the more targeted search results.

When searching in databases, you’ll need to look up the syntax they require for proximity searches. On Nexis Uni, for example, the “around” search is constructed as follows: keyword1 w/# keyword 2, e.g. “protection” w/25 “term of art.” Nexis also enables even more sophisticated proximity searches using operators like near/#, w/p (within a paragraph), and PRE/# (the first keyword must come before the second keyword and be within the specified number of words).

Hein Online uses a similar basic syntax (w/#), but it requires different search terms for its advanced syntax searches: w/s (within a sentence), w/p (within a paragraph), and w/seg (within a segment).

Another good way to begin constructing searches on Google is to use the Google Advanced Search page. However, some of Google’s advanced search operators aren’t “built in” to that page. Here are a few examples that use these operators:

  • define:”x” (this is Google’s built-in dictionary search)
  • x” intitle:”glossary” (search for keyword x in results with “glossary” in the title)
  • x” site:*.gov (search for keyword x in .gov sites only)

Once you’ve exhausted your list of specific searches, it can be helpful to “zoom out” and try a few more basic searches. These are less likely to return “home run” results, but they often find useful sources that might otherwise be missed. One way to do this is to repeat the proximity searches listed above, but without the proximity operator. For example:

  • x” AND “glossary”
  • x” AND “definitions”
  • x” AND “can be defined”
  • x” AND “dictionary definition”
  • x” AND “plain meaning”

Because these searches will return so many results, it can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. To eliminate results you’ve already found via targeted searches, you can exclude them with a nested search:

(“x” AND “can be defined”) -(“x can be defined”) -(“x” AROUND(25) “can be defined”)

In general, nested searches can help you return more results in your initial search so that you don’t have to repeat so many individual searches. Here’s a “super search” nested search:

“the term x” OR “the phrase x” OR “the word x” OR “x is defined” OR “x can be defined” OR “x may be defined” OR “x can include” OR “x may include” OR “define x” OR “defined x” OR “definition of x” OR “x means” OR “meaning of x

For all of these searches, figuring out what to include as x can be difficult. You will of course want to use the exact term you are seeking to define, but you might also need to try synonyms or other variations of the term that might be used instead. Using the high school water resources protection example, we might tweak one of our searches as follows:

(“the term protection” OR “the term water resources protection” OR “the term protect”) AND “water resources”

This search will return results that include the term “water resources” and one of the following phrases: “the term protection,” “the term water resources protection,” or “the term protect.”


None of these suggestions will make topicality research “easy,” but incorporating them into your research process can help you more efficiently find better topicality evidence.

Remember, the best topicality researchers are very patient; they skim through useless result after useless result without giving up. Eventually, they find the most useful topicality evidence hidden “underneath” or “behind” the most obvious search results. Sources and search terms are important, but there’s no substitute for persistence.

Do you have a tip I didn’t mention that might help students improve their topicality research? Share it in the comments below.