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Systematic Review: How to Search

This guide presents tools and advice for conducting systematic reviews.

How to Search

Starting Your Search

Once you have selected the correct framework for your review, use the framework to develop your search strategy. First place the various concepts into their relevant framework section, i.e., the Population from your question goes into the population section, Intervention into the intervention section etc..

Then start thinking of keywords for each concept. It is important to remember that you are trying to discover all the literature relating to your research question. Don't just use the words that are in your research question. This is something the team should work on together to make sure that the search is as comprehensive as possible.

We recommend involving a librarian to help guide this process.

Identify Your Search Terms

Things to bear in mind when thinking of keywords.
•    What alternative vocabulary is used in discussion of my topic?
•    Are there Irish and American variations in spelling or vocabulary?
•    Consider alternative word endings/plurals Example: school, schools, high school, secondary school.
•    Are common abbreviations, acronyms or formulae used?
•    Are there broader or narrower terms that could be relevant?

Formulate Search Strings

When you have thought of your keywords, translate the keywords into search strings. Check the tabs above for tips on how to do this effectively. 

The first draft of your search strategy shouldn't be your final draft. Searches should be tried out and their success should be evaluated. Does the search run without any errors? Are you finding articles that you would expect to see in your search results. Are you discovering new articles and can you use them to improve the next version of your search strategy. Do not rush this part of the review. If the search isn't as good as it could be, the rest of the review is flawed.

Translate Your Strategy for Individual Databases

When you have a finalised list of keywords you will need to translate your search strategy to run on multiple databases. Any keywords chosen will be used in all databases, but thesaurus terms will change with each database. Any truncation, wildcard etc. symbols used may also differ from database to database and will need to be corrected before the search is finalised.

When you are running your search do each framework element individually and then use the database's search history to combine them to give you the final results.

Keyword Searching

Each search strategy for a review is made up of two parts: Keywords, words used by authors when writing the articles; and Subject Terms assigned by the database to describe its contents.

At the start when you are investigating your question and running scoping searches you will do basic keyword searches. It is commonplace for searchers when running the final search to limit keywords to just title and abstract fields to help make sure that the results are more focused. However, you should take care as there can be keywords that are important for your research question that are not used by authors in the title and abstract and therefore could be missed if you search solely in title and abstract. The decision should be made based on your familiarity with the literature for your question.

If there isn't much published in your area of interest you can consider searching more broadly to ensure you don't miss any references.

Phrase Searching

If you are searching for a phrase such as educational technology, it is important that the database knows that you are searching for these two words as a phrase and not two unconnected words. You can identify a phrase by using quotation marks “educational technology”. Now the database will only return any result where those two words are together in that order.

There may be variations in how this works in different databases. For example, in Embase you use single or double quotes around the phrase, e.g., 'heart attack' and in Scopus {curly brackets} are used to indicate an exact phrase and “quotation marks” indicate an approximate or loose phrase.

Please Note: If you are uncertain about to search for a phrase in a specific database, check the database help pages.

Proximity Searching

Proximity searching like phrase searching is concerned with the relationship between words. In this case it is how close they are to each other in either order.

breast adj3 cancer will retrieve records where Breast and Cancer appear within 3 words of each other in any order

Please Note: adj is not always the notation used in every database so check the database help pages to make sure you have the correct notation.


You can use truncation searching to search for multiple endings for the same root word. This is achieved by using a symbol such as *

child* will get you child, children, childish, childhood etc.

Please note: * is not always the symbol used in every database so check the database help pages to make sure you have the correct symbol.


Wildcards are used to replace a single letter and are often used to search for words that have variant spellings.

Colo?r will find references that have either color or colour.

Please Note: ? is not always the symbol used in every database so check the database help pages to make sure you have the correct symbol.

Subject Terms

Review search strategies are not just made up of relevant keywords. Search strategies also have to use subject terms. The subject terms are found in the database's thesaurus. For example, the thesaurus in PubMed, Medline and Cochrane Library is MeSH. A thesaurus is used by the database to give a preferred term for a concept that has multiple synonyms.

When you have a list of keywords go and check each database to see if there are any matching thesaurus terms. Any term that you discover should be added to your search strategy. If your keyword and thesaurus term are the same, make sure to leave them both in your search strategy.

All thesauri work in a hierarchical fashion with broader terms above your terms and narrower terms below it. It is best practice to check above and below your term to see if there are any other suitable terms.

If you discover any new terms while looking in the thesaurus it is worth considering if you should add them add them as keywords in your search strategy.

Please Note: Thesauri are specific to each database and each database should be individually checked. The notation of how you tell the same database on different platforms to search for a thesaurus term can be very different. For example in PubMed its "Neoplasms"[Mesh] and on Ovid MEDLINE it’s Neoplasms.

What are Search Filters?

Search filters are pre-formulated search strategies that can be used to refine your searches in order to find certain kinds of results. You can use them to refine your search by such criteria as study design, age, or gender among others.

Search filters are designed for specific databases and interfaces, so make sure that you have the appropriate filter for your search. Filters are continually being refined and improved, so make sure that you pick the most up to date version.

Using a search filter

Once you have located your filter, you can run it in your database. Each line of the search filter is a separate search on the database and must be implemented exactly as is laid out in the search filter. Once you have finished you can then "AND" it with you your original search strategy to get your results.

Top Tip: You can save time by saving your search filter from the database search history and then just rerunning it when ever you need to.

Examples of Search Filters


Search strategies for each database should be as identical as possible to ensure consistency. However database interfaces are not identical and may need to be adapted for different truncation symbols, proximity searching and other factors. Below are a some resources that give some advice on the differences between databases and what needs to be amended. The help pages of databases that you are planning on using are also an invaluable source of information.

Where to Search

The sources you decide to search will depend on your discipline. Here is an initial selection of databases that you might find useful for your  review. You can find a more complete list of databases by discipline here.

You can also find additional subject information and guidance in our range of subject guides.

Sources for Health


Sources for Human Sciences

Grey Literature


Handsearching journals and conference proceedings can be a useful adjunct to searching electronic databases for at least two reasons: (1) not all trial reports are included in electronic bibliographic databases, and (2) even when they are included, they may not contain relevant search terms in the titles or abstracts or be indexed with terms that allow them to be easily identified as trials

Evaluating Your Search Strategy

In order to ensure that you have developed the highest quality search for your research question it is advisable that you evaluate its quality. Best practice says that this ideally is a peer review process and should be independently conducted by librarians or other information specialists.

You can use the Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) Guideline. See the links below for more information.

The PRESS guideline provides a set of recommendations concerning the information that should be used by librarians and other information specialists when they are asked to evaluate these electronic search strategies. 

In any review you will need to access the full text of any articles that remain after screening. Below are some tips on how you can track down the full text of those articles.

How to get to the full text of articles you need to read.