Skip to Main Content
University of Texas University of Texas Libraries

Systematic Reviews

Searching Systematically

The Importance of Search Methodology

A clear methodology for finding studies is an essential element of a systematic review. Your approach needs to be well documented (transparent) and as replicable as possible. This is the stage of a systematic review where consultation with a librarian is valuable. We have extensive experience with the databases most often used in reviews. We know what they cover (and miss) and how they vary. Through conversation and exploratory searching, librarians can help you find the right balance between search sensitivity and specificity, and they can assist in finalizing a valid search protocol. 

Developing a Search Strategy

Searching is an iterative process, and you will already have done some exploratory searching before you get to this point in the review process. During protocol development, you will have identified relevant databases, search terms, and studies. These will help you build your systematic search strategy that you will report out in your methods section (the more detailed and transparent you are about this process, the better, so it helps to keep track).

  1. Compile identified terms and databases
    • Keep key concepts separate from one another rather than searching in phrases
    • String together synonyms for each concept connected with the Boolean operator "OR"
      • i.e., Population: (Latinx OR Hispanic OR Mexican OR Chicano)
      • Problem/Issue: (acculturative stress OR cultural assimilation OR marginalization OR discrimination)
      • Intervention: (community engagement OR community involvement OR civic engagement)
  2. Add truncations and wildcards
    • Truncations and wildcards can help you enhance your search. For example, Latin* will search for latinx, latina, latino, and latin@
  3. Test your search in your identified databases
    • In the EBSCO platform you can search multiple databases together, but it is recommended that you only do this during the testing stage.
    • Focus first on the number of results. Is this what you expected? Is this more search results than you expected or less?
    • Test your search strategy with the articles you identified when formulating your research question. Do those articles show up in your search? If not, what is missing from your search strategy that might need to be added?
  4. Tweak your search strategy based on what you find
    • Scan titles and abstracts in your search results to identify terms to include or exclude from your search strategy.
    • Try adding or removing quotation marks from phrases in your search strategy.
  5. Test again, test a LOT
    • Don't get discouraged with this process, especially if you are a beginner. Testing your search strategy is good practice and can take a while with many iterations, but there's no real right or wrong answer. What's important is that you feel relatively confident that you are capturing the relevant literature.
  6. Adapt search strategies for different databases
    • Truncations and wildcards, and even boolean operators can vary between databases, so you'll want to adapt your search strategy accordingly. Use the Help link in the databases to identify the wildcards and truncations they use.
  7. Conduct final search
    • Conduct searches separately in each database.
    • Keep track of the date, exact strategy used, and number of search results for each database search. You'll want to report this later.

Don't forget your librarians are here to help!

Systematic Searching in PubMed

Using Medical Subject Headings in PubMed

Tips!

Test your search methods with articles you know should match. Simply add the article title to the last bar of your search and run it again. If that article doesn't appear, find it in the database. Then look over the words in the abstract and subject terms to determine why you didn't find it. Adjust your search accordingly.

Document your search! Take advantage of database features to save searches. Keep a record of all your final searches. Consider keeping a PRISMA flow diagram of your work (required by most SR guidelines).

Keyword Search Tips

For a systematic review, you want to find all possible permutations for your search terms to make sure you don't miss anything. Beyond scouring existing reviews and encyclopedia articles, you also want to make sure you find the appropriate controlled vocabulary for your concepts.

Search for the appropriate MeSH Terms (Medical Subject Heading Terms) in PubMed.

In EBSCO, you can check to see if there is a thesaurus for your chosen database(s).

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.