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Systematic and Systematic-like Reviews

Your Search Strategy - Search techniques

It's a good idea to do some rough preliminary searching before you start your systematic approach. This will help with identifying key authors and keywords and come up with some articles which seem to align to your topic. You should aim find a minimum of 2 example articles (sometimes called seed or gold set articles) that meet your review criteria.

You can use these key articles to:

  • identify search terms
  • help you check your final search strategy - (if the preliminary articles don't come up when you do your final searching, you might need to rethink your final search strategy)
  • find related articles by following links to references and citing articles. 

If you haven't searched in databases for a while (or you are inexperienced), you might like to check on the search techniques used in online searching. See the Searching in a Database section of the Library's Database Help guide.  

For a summary of search operators in different databases, see the University of Tasmania's document on Search operators for different databases.

Identify concepts and keywords

Your research question and search framework should direct you to the most important concepts that you need to include in your searching.

  • For each concept you will need to consider all the different terms that could be used to describe it. To help with this, use your own knowledge of the topic plus words and phrases that came up in your preliminary searching. Also consider: text mining; the use of subject dictionaries; and database-specific subject headings.

  • It's customary to search for one concept at a time, using the OR operator between synonyms. As a final step, use the database search history to combine your search sets with the AND operator.

Identify search limiters, and inclusions & exclusions

In any literature review it's important to consider the inclusion and exclusion parameters of your searching. These can be applied by:

  • limiting searches (also known as refining or filtering) as might be possible in each database
  • excluding articles on the basis of title-and-abstract screening.

In a systematic review/protocol, information about the inclusion and exclusion criteria is usually recorded as a paragraph or table in the Methods section.

Common criteria include:

  • Time period (date of publication)
  • Language 
  • Publication type 
  • Geography or setting
  • Age groups 
  • Study design.

Review Your Search Strategy

In reviewing your searching, you might need to ask if you have:

  • searched the most appropriate databases for your topic?
  • checked for spelling mistakes or typos?
  • used a comprehensive list of search terms appropriate to your search framework (eg. PICO)?
  • used thesaurus terms/subject headings specific to each database?
  • used combing operators (AND, OR) appropriately?
  • added any new terms discovered while searching to all your database searches?

The PRESS Checklist for reviewing search strategies has been developed by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH). See the PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies: 2015 Guideline Statement

For further assistance, contact your Library Faculty Team.

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