The search for a systematic review is based on the research question originally developed for the review. The goal of the search is to find all of the relevant studies, so it has to be comprehensive enough to capture all of the literature and to be performed in more than one source.
Key points to include in a search strategy
The information below will guide you step by step as you build your systematic searches, and will cover each of the key points just mentioned in detail. The information covers just one approach to building systematic searches, and different people may do things slightly differently when building searches. Note that this information does have a health sciences focus but the principles can be applied to systematic searching in non-health disciplines, with variations as needed to suit the discipline.
There are some things you should do before you start to build your systematic searches, including scoping searching, defining your research topic, checking for existing systematic reviews, and registering your review protocol. Watch this video or use the pdf document to see how to do these steps:
The next step is to make a preliminary search, which can then be further developed into full systematic search strategies. Watch this video or use the pdf document to see how to do this:
Once you've made a preliminary search, you next need to further develop this by limiting your search terms to the title and abstract fields, and adding subject headings (e.g. MeSH) to your search. Watch this video or use the pdf document to see how to do this:
Once you've built yourself a good structured search in one database with all the features of a systematic search you'll need to take some extra steps to consider it done. Watch this video or use the pdf document to see how to do this:
The final steps in the systematic searching process include translating your search for other databases, running the searches, deduplicating, record keeping and reporting, and then moving on to screening. Watch this video or use the pdf documents to see how to do this:
More information on some of the points covered in the video and pdfs above is covered elsewhere in this guide:
The Select studies (screening) page of this guide also has some extra information on the screening phase.
For some searches it will be appropriate to use a search filter (also called a hedge) to further refine the search. Most commonly this is done to limit search results to a particular study design, e.g. randomised controlled trials, but there are filters to limit results in other ways, e.g. to a subject area, to a geographic region, a particular condition etc. Filters are sets of search terms that have been developed by experts to refine a search in a particular way. The best filters have been validated. i.e. tested empirically to ensure they perform well and reliably retrieve relevant papers.
Resources for search filters:
Identifying and using filters appropriately can be a complex task. We'd recommend contacting the UQ Librarians who can help to get the best results for you in the quickest time.
Lefebvre C, Glanville J, Briscoe S, Featherstone R, Littlewood A, Marshall C et al. Searching for and selecting studies. In: Higgins J, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ et al, editors. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions, Cochrane; 2022.
Lefebvre C, Glanville J, Briscoe S, Featherstone R, Littlewood A, Marshall C et al. Technical supplement to Chapter 4: Searching for and selecting studies. In: Higgins J, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ et al, editors. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions, Cochrane; 2022.
Pettigrew M, Roberts H. Systematic reviews in the social sciences: a practical guide. Malden (MA): Blackwell Publishing; 2006. Chapter 4, How to find the studies: the literature search; p. 79-124.
Kugley S, Wade A, Thomas J, Mahood Q, Jørgensen AMK, Hammerstrøm, et al. Searching for studies: a guide to information retrieval for Campbell systematic reviews. Campbell Syst Rev. 2017;13(1):1-73.
See section 3 'Conducting a search' in: Pullin AS, Frampton GK, Livoreil B, Petrokofsky G, editors. Guidelines and standards for evidence synthesis in environmental management, Collaboration for Environmental Evidence; 2022.
The information above will show you how to build systematic searches step by step and focusses on the essential techniques relevant to that process. If you'd like to learn more about database searching more generally the following resources may be something you'd like to explore:
Database searching information