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Systematic Reviews: Searching



  • Develop comprehensive search that identifies all relevant articles on a topic
  • Expect to screen hundreds, often thousands of articles


  • Search for systematic reviews that have already been published
    • Make sure paper has not been published recently
    • If paper exists, can provide examples of search strategies for your topic
  • Look for key papers on your topic and check how they have been indexed

Databases - search following 3 at a minimum 

  • PubMED / Ovid MEDLINE
  • Embase
  • Cochrane CENTRAL (Cochrane Controlled Register of Trials)

Additional databases depending on subject and comprehensiveness

  • PsycINFO
  • Scopus 
  • Web of Science

Search Checklist

Key components in constructing a search strategy

  • Search all concepts
  • Use MeSH (medical subject headings), Emtree (Embase subject headings), and other database specific vocabulary
  • Use explosion and subheadings 
  • Use words/phrases in the title/abstract
  • Use synonyms, singular/plural variations, British/American spellings
  • Use truncation/wild cards
  • Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)
  • Use adjacency/proximity word searches 

Limiters to consider

  • Languages
  • Time period 
  • Study types or publication types

Validate / test your search strategy

  • Run test search 
    • Make sure search strategy picked up the key articles you identified in the preparation phase
  • Check spelling and punctuation

Document search results and strategies

  • Record search strategy for each database including years of coverage, date searched, and number of results