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Systematic and Systematic-like Reviews

Documenting your search strategy

You will need to carefully record your search strategy to ensure it is reproducible and verifiable, especially for publication.

How? For each search, record the name of the database, the years covered, the date you searched and your exact search strategy, including all the terms you have used. One way to record your searches is to save the search history from each database. To do this you will need to create an account with the database provider - select My Account (in Ovid databases), Sign In (EBSCOhost or Proquest) or Register (Web of Science).

Here's an example: Date: 11 September, 2018. Database: Ovid MEDLINE 1946 to August Week 5 2018           

   Search Terms
 1.  (aged or elderly or frail).ti,ab
 2.  exp Health Services for the Aged/ or exp Homes for the Aged/ or exp Nursing Homes/ or exp Geriatric Nursing/ or exp Aged
 3.  1 OR 2
 4.  cranberr*.ti,ab
 5.  Vaccinium macrocarpon/
 6.  4 OR 5
 7.  (uti or "urinary tract infection*").ti,ab
 8.  Urinary Tract Infections/
 9.  7 OR 8
 10.  3 AND 6 AND 9
  ti,ab = Title or Abstract … / = MeSH term; exp … / = exploded MeSH term

This can also be expressed in a linear way:

((aged OR elderly OR frail).ti.ab.OR exp Health Services for the Aged/ OR exp Homes for the Aged/ OR exp Nursing Homes/ OR exp Geriatric Nursing/ OR exp Aged) AND (cranberr*.ti, ab. OR Vaccinium macrocarpon/) AND ((uti OR "urinary tract infection*").ti, ab. OR Urinary Tract Infections/)

You will most likely have to go back and refine your searches as new terms and subject headings present themselves as you go on. And then you will need to translate your search into other databases,taking into account the unique language of each database - what symbols are used for truncation, wildcards, and so on, and the thesauri terms if applicable.

You should apply your main limits at the end of your search (language, date of publication, publication type).

Here are some resources that might help you with all of these steps:

  • Use a search planner as a living document throughout the process. Deakin University has a suggested search planner here which you could adapt. Or try the spreadsheet devised at Monash University, which has a different sheet for each database searched.
  • You may be required (by the journal you wish to publish in, or your supervisor or lecturer) to record your search results on a PRISMA Flow Diagram and/or to follow the PRISMA for Searching checklist.
  • The Polyglot Search Translator has been developed by a Librarian at Bond University for health searches. If you plug in a search string from a particular database here it will translate the search language into strings for other databases such as Ovid Medline, Cinahl, PubMed, the Cochrane Library and more.
  • The Cochrane Library has a handy Database Syntax Guide which summarises the particular languages of the major database platforms
  • For some great examples of how to record your search framework and search strategy across various disciplines and databases, do have a look in:  Foster, M. J., & Jewell, S. T. (2017). Identifying the studies: Case studies. In M. J. Foster & S. T. Jewell (Eds.), Assembling the pieces of a systematic review: A guide for librarians (pp. 99-123). Rowman & Littlefield. Highly recommended!

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