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Systematic Reviews

Learn about conducting systematic reviews

Designing Your Search Strategy

A well designed search strategy is essential to the success of your systematic review. Your strategy should be specific, unbiased, reproducible and will typically include subject headings along with a range of keywords/phrases for each of your concepts.  

Your searches should be designed to capture as many studies as possible that meet your criteria.

Chapter 4 of the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions provides detailed guidance for searching and study selection; see Supplement 3.8 Adapting search strategies across databases / sources for translating your search across databases.

Systematic Reviews: Constructing a Search Strategy and Searching for Evidence from the Joanna Briggs Institute provides step-by-step guidance using PubMed as an example database. 

General Steps:

  1. Locate previous/ relevant searches
  2. Identify your databases
  3. Develop your search terms and design search
  4. Evaluate and modify your search
  5. Document your search (PRISMA-S Checklist)
  6. Translate your search for other databases

Pre-Search Tips

Conduct a preliminary set of scoping searches in various databases to test out your search terms (keywords and subject headings) and locate additional terms for your concepts.

Try building a "gold set" of relevant references to help you identify search terms. Sources for this gold set may include:

  • Recommended key papers
  • Papers by known authors in the field
  • Results of preliminary searches from key databases such 
  • Reviewing references and "cited by" articles lists for key papers
  • Articles that have been published in authoritative journals 
The Yale MeSH Analyzer can be used to extracting MeSH from your gold set and useful in identifying Relevant MeSH headings. Test your search strategy to ensure it will retrieve the items in your gold set and other relevant references.

Search Strategies: Filters & Hedges

Hedges/ Filters

Hedges are search strings created by experts to help you retrieve specific types of studies or topics; a hedge will filter your results by adding specific search terms, or specific combinations of search terms, to your search.  

Hedges can be good starting points but you may need to modify the search string to fit your research. Resources for hedges:

Example: Health Disparities & Minority Health Search Strategies

((ethnic disparities[TIAB] OR
ethnic disparity[TIAB] OR
health disparities[TIAB] OR
health disparity[TIAB] OR
healthcare disparities[MH] OR
health care disparities[TIAB] OR
healthcare disparities[TIAB] OR
health-care disparities[TIAB] OR
health care disparity[TIAB] OR
healthcare disparity[TIAB] OR
health-care disparity[TIAB] OR
health status disparities[MH] OR
(disparities in health[TIAB]) OR
J Health Care Poor Underserved[Journal] OR
J Health Dispar Res Pract[Journal] OR
J Racial Ethn Health Disparities[Journal]) OR
(culturally competent care[MH] OR
culturally competent care[TIAB] OR
delivery of health care[MH:noexp] OR
disparities[TIAB] OR
health behavior[MH] OR
health behavior[TIAB] OR
health behaviors[TIAB] OR
health inequality[TIAB] OR
health inequalities[TIAB] OR
health inequities[TIAB] OR
health inequity[TIAB] OR
health knowledge, attitudes, practice[MH] OR
health related quality of life[TIAB] OR
health-related quality of life[TIAB] OR
health services accessibility[MH] OR
health services, indigenous[MH] OR
health services needs and demand[MH] OR
health status disparities[MH] OR
mass screening[MH] OR
mass screening[TIAB] OR
mass screenings[TIAB] OR
patient acceptance of health care[MH] OR
patient selection[MH] OR
quality of health care[MeSH Major Topic:noexp] OR
social class[MH] OR
social class[TIAB] OR
social determinants of health[MH] OR
social determinants of health[TIAB] OR
social disparities[TIAB] OR
social disparity[TIAB] OR
social factors[TIAB] OR
social inequities[TIAB] OR
social inequity[TIAB] OR
socioeconomic factor[TIAB] OR
socioeconomic factors[MH] OR
socioeconomic factors[TIAB] OR
socioeconomically disadvantaged[TIAB]) AND
(African American[TIAB] OR
African Americans[TIAB] OR
African ancestry[TIAB] OR
african continental ancestry group[MH] OR
ageism[MH] OR
AIAN[TIAB] OR
Alaska Native[TIAB] OR
Alaska Natives[TIAB] OR
american native continental ancestry group[MH] OR
apartheid[MH] OR
Asian[TIAB] OR
asian continental ancestry group[MH] OR
Asians[TIAB] OR
Black American[TIAB] OR
Black Americans[TIAB] OR
Caucasian[TIAB] OR
Caucasians[TIAB] OR
disabled[TIAB] OR
disabled persons[MH] OR
disabled persons[TIAB] OR
diverse population[TIAB] OR
diverse populations[TIAB] OR
emigrants and immigrants[MH] OR

ethnic group[TIAB] OR
ethnic groups[MH] OR
ethnic groups[TIAB] OR
ethnic inequalities[TIAB] OR
ethnic population[TIAB] OR
ethnic populations[TIAB] OR
ghetto[TIAB] OR
ghettos[TIAB] OR
health services for persons with disabilities[MH] OR
Hispanic[TIAB] OR
hispanic americans[MH] OR
Hispanics[TIAB] OR
homeless[TIAB] OR
homeless persons[MH] OR


immigrant[TIAB] OR
immigrants[TIAB] OR
Indian[TIAB] OR
Indians[TIAB] OR
indians, north american[MH] OR
inmate[TIAB] OR
inmates[TIAB] OR
jail[TIAB] OR
jail population[TIAB] OR
jail populations[TIAB] OR
Latina[TIAB] OR
Latinas[TIAB] OR
Latino[TIAB] OR
Latinos[TIAB] OR
mexican americans[MH] OR
medically underserved area[MH] OR
medically uninsured[MH] OR
minorities' health[TIAB] OR
minority group[TIAB] OR
minority groups[MH] OR
minority groups[TIAB] OR
minority health[MH] OR
minority health[TIAB] OR
minority population[TIAB] OR
minority populations[TIAB] OR
migrant worker[TIAB] OR
migrant workers[TIAB] OR
Native American[TIAB] OR
Native Americans[TIAB] OR
Native Hawaiian[TIAB] OR
Native Hawaiians[TIAB] OR
oceanic ancestry group[MH] OR
Pacific Islander[TIAB] OR
Pacific Islanders[TIAB] OR
people of color[TIAB] OR
poverty[MH] OR
poverty[TIAB] OR
poverty areas[MH] OR
poverty area[TIAB] OR
poverty areas[TIAB] OR
prisoner[TIAB] OR
prisoners[MH] OR
prisoners[TIAB] OR
race factors[MH] OR
race factors[TIAB] OR
race and ethnicity[TIAB] OR
racial and ethnic minorities[TIAB] OR
racial discrimination[TIAB] OR
racial disparities[TIAB] OR
racial disparity[TIAB] OR
racial equality[TIAB] OR
racial equity[TIAB] OR
racial inequities[TIAB] OR
racial inequity[TIAB] OR
racial prejudice[TIAB] OR
racial segregation[TIAB] OR
racism[MH] OR

refugees[MH] OR
refugees[TIAB] OR
rural health[MH] OR
rural health[TIAB] OR
rural health services[MH] OR
rural population[MH] OR
rural population[TIAB] OR
rural populations[TIAB] OR
sexism[MH] OR
slum[TIAB] OR
slums[TIAB] OR
social discrimination[MH] OR
social marginalization[MH] OR
social segregation[MH] OR
transients and migrants[MH] OR
underserved[TIAB] OR
undocumented immigrants[MH] OR
medically uninsured[MH] OR
uninsured[TIAB] OR
urban health[MH] OR
urban health services[MH] OR
urban population[MH] OR
urban population[TIAB] OR


urban populations[TIAB] OR
vulnerable population[TIAB] OR
vulnerable populations[MH] OR
vulnerable populations[TIAB] OR
working poor[MH] OR
working poor[TIAB] OR
bisexuals[TIAB] OR
bisexual[TIAB] OR
bigender[TIAB] OR
disorders of sex development[MH] OR
disorders of sex development[TIAB] OR
female homosexuality[TIAB] OR
gay[TIAB] OR
gays[TIAB] OR
gender change[TIAB] OR
gender confirmation[TIAB] OR
gender disorder[TIAB] OR
gender disorders[TIAB] OR
gender dysphoria[TIAB] OR
gender diverse[TIAB] OR
gender-diverse[TIAB] OR
gender diversity[TIAB] OR
gender identity[MH] OR
gender identity[TIAB] OR
gender minorities[TIAB] OR
gender non conforming[TIAB] OR
gender non-conforming[TIAB] OR
gender orientation[TIAB] OR
genderqueer[TIAB] OR
gender reassignment[TIAB] OR
gender surgery[TIAB] OR
GLBT[TIAB] OR
GLBTQ[TIAB] OR
health services for transgender persons[MH] OR
homophile[TIAB] OR
homophilia[TIAB] OR
homosexual[TIAB] OR
homosexuality[MH] OR
homosexuality, female[MH] OR
homosexuality, male[MH] OR
homosexuals[TIAB] OR
intersex[TIAB] OR
lesbian[TIAB] OR
lesbianism[TIAB] OR
lesbians[TIAB] ORLGBBTQ[TIAB] OR
LGBT[TIAB] OR
LGBTI[TIAB] OR
LGBTQ[TIAB] OR
LGBTQI[TIAB] OR
LGBTQIA[TIAB] OR
men having sex with men[TIAB] OR
men who have sex with men[TIAB] OR
men who have sex with other men[TIAB] OR
nonheterosexual[TIAB] OR
non-heterosexual[TIAB] OR
non heterosexuals[TIAB] OR
nonheterosexuals[TIAB] OR
pansexual[TIAB] OR
polysexual[TIAB] OR
queer[All Fields] OR
same sex [TIAB] OR
sexual and gender disorders[MH] OR
sexual and gender minorities[MH] OR
sex change[TIAB] OR
sex reassignment[TIAB] OR
sex reassignment procedures[MH] OR
sex reassignment surgery[MH] OR
sex reassignment surgery[TIAB] OR
sexual diversity[TIAB] OR
sexual minorities[TIAB] OR
sexual minority[TIAB] OR
sexual orientation[TIAB] OR
transgender*[TIAB] OR
transgender persons[MH] OR
transsexual*[TIAB] OR
transman[TIAB] OR
trans men[TIAB] OR
transmen[TIAB] OR
transsexualism[MH] OR
transsexualism[TIAB] OR
transwoman[TIAB] OR
trans women[TIAB] OR
transwomen[TIAB] OR
two spirit[TIAB] OR
two-spirit[TIAB] OR
women who have sex with women[TIAB]))

 

Search Terms

You can use your PICOTS concepts as preliminary search terms. The important terms in this question:

In adults, is screening for depression and feedback of results to providers more effective than no screening and feedback in improving outcomes of major depression in primary care settings?

...might include:

Adults

Screening

Feedback

Outcomes

Major depression

Primary Care

(From Lackey, M. (2013). Systematic reviews: Searching the literature [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://guides.lib.unc.edu/ld.php?content_id=258919)

Your search will include both keywords and subject headings. Controlled vocabulary systems, such as the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) or Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), use pre-set terms that are used to tag resources on similar subjects. See boxes below for more information on finding and using subject terms.

Not all databases will have subject heading searching and for those that do, the subject heading categories may differ between databases. This is because databases classify articles using different criteria.

Using the keywords from our example, here are some MeSH terms for:

Adults: Adult (A person having attained full growth or maturity. Adults are of 19 through 44 years of age. For a person between 19 and 24 years of age, YOUNG ADULT is available.)

Screening: Mass Screening (Organized periodic procedures performed on large groups of people for the purpose of detecting disease.)

Major depression: Depressive Disorder, Major (Marked depression appearing in the involution period and characterized by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and agitation.)

Here is a LCSH subject term for:

Depression: Depression, mental (Dejection ; Depression, Unipolar ; Depressive disorder ; Depressive psychoses ; Melancholia ; Mental depression ; Unipolar depression)

keywords vs subjects chart

  • Most EBSCO databases have a tool to help you discover subject terms. See Academic Search Complete > Subject Terms and Academic Search Complete > Subject Terms: Thesaurus
  • Most ProQuest databases have a tool to help you discover subject terms: See PsycInfo > Thesaurus
  • When you find a useful article, look at the article's Subject Headings (or Subject or Subject Terms), and record them as possible terms to use in a subject term search.

Here is an example of the subject terms listed for a systematic review found in PsycINFO, "Primary care screening for and treatment of depression in pregnant and postpartum women: Evidence report and systematic review for the US Preventive Services Task Force" (2016).

MeSH are standardized terms that describe the main concepts of PubMed/MedLine articles. Searching with MeSH can increase the precision of your search by providing a consistent way to retrieve articles that may use different terminology or spelling variations. 

Note: new articles will not have MeSH terms; the indexing process may take up to a few weeks for newly ingested articles. 

Use the MeSH database to locate and build a search using MeSH.

  Access the Mesh Database from the PubMed homepage under the Explore menu.

To search the MeSH database:

  • Search for 1 concept at a time.
  • If you do not see a relevant MeSH in the results, search again with a synonym or related term.
  • Click on the MeSH term to view to the complete record​, subheadings, broader and narrower terms. 

Build a search from the results list or from the MeSH term record to specify subheadings.

  • Select the box next to the MeSH term or subheadings that you wish to search and click Add to Search Builder.
  • ​You may need to switch AND to OR, depending on how you would like to combine terms.
  • Repeat the above steps to add additional MeSH terms. When your search is ready, click Search PubMed.

Logic Grid with Keywords and Index Terms or Subject Headings from Systematic Reviews: Constructing a Search Strategy and Searching for Evidence.

 Bhuiyan, M. U., Stiboy, E., Hassan, M. Z., Chan, M., Islam, M. S., Haider, N., Jaffe, A., & Homaira, N. (2021). Vaccine39(4), 667–677. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2020.11.078 

 

Database: SCOPUS

1

( TITLE-ABS-KEY ( "2019 nCoV"  OR  2019ncov  OR  "2019-nCoV"  OR  "2019 novel coronavirus"  OR  "Novel coronavirus 2019"  OR  "COVID 19"  OR  "COVID-19"  OR  "COVID19"  OR  "Wuhan coronavirus"  OR  "Wuhan pneumonia"  OR  "SARS CoV-2"  OR  "SARS-Cov-2" )  AND  TITLE-ABS-KEY ( children  OR  child*  OR  infant  OR  pediatric  OR  paediatric  OR  adolescent ) )

Database: Web of Science

1

TS=("2019 nCoV") OR TS=(2019ncov) OR TS=("2019-nCoV") OR TS=("2019 novel coronavirus") OR TS=("Novel coronavirus 2019") OR TS=("COVID 19") OR TS=("COVID-19") OR TS=(COVID19) OR TS=("Wuhan coronavirus") OR TS=("Wuhan pneumonia") OR TS=("SARS CoV-2") OR TS=("SARS-Cov-2")

Indexes=SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC Timespan=All years

2

TS=(infant) OR TS=(child) OR TS=(children) OR TS=(adolescent) OR TS=(paediatric) OR TS=(pediatric)

Indexes=SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC Timespan=All years

3

#2 AND #1

Indexes=SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC Timespan=All years

Database: Pubmed

(((((((((((("2019 nCoV"[Title/Abstract] OR "2019ncov"[Title/Abstract]) OR "2019-nCoV"[Title/Abstract]) OR "2019 novel coronavirus"[Title/Abstract]) OR "Novel coronavirus 2019"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID 19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID-19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "Wuhan coronavirus"[Title/Abstract]) OR "SARS CoV-2"[Title/Abstract]) OR "SARS-Cov-2"[Title/Abstract]) AND (((((((((((infant[Title/Abstract] OR "infant"[MeSH Terms]) OR child[Title/Abstract]) OR "child"[MeSH Terms]) OR children[Title/Abstract]) OR "child"[MeSH Terms]) OR adolescent[Title/Abstract]) OR "adolescent"[MeSH Terms]) OR paediatric[Title/Abstract]) OR "pediatrics"[MeSH Terms]) OR pediatric[Title/Abstract]) OR "pediatrics"[MeSH Terms])) AND "humans"[MeSH Terms]) AND (((((((((((("2019 nCoV"[Title/Abstract] OR "2019ncov"[Title/Abstract]) OR "2019-nCoV"[Title/Abstract]) OR "2019 novel coronavirus"[Title/Abstract]) OR "Novel coronavirus 2019"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID 19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID-19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "COVID19"[Title/Abstract]) OR "Wuhan coronavirus"[Title/Abstract]) OR "SARS CoV-2"[Title/Abstract]) OR "SARS-Cov-2"[Title/Abstract]) AND (((((((((((infant[Title/Abstract] OR "infant"[MeSH Terms]) OR child[Title/Abstract]) OR "child"[MeSH Terms]) OR children[Title/Abstract]) OR "child"[MeSH Terms]) OR adolescent[Title/Abstract]) OR "adolescent"[MeSH Terms]) OR paediatric[Title/Abstract]) OR "pediatrics"[MeSH Terms]) OR pediatric[Title/Abstract]) OR "pediatrics"[MeSH Terms])) AND "humans"[MeSH Terms])

 

Search Strategies: AND/OR, Phrase Searching & Truncation

AND, OR, NOT

Join together search terms in a logical manner.

AND - narrows searches, used to join dissimilar terms
OR - broadens searches, used to join similar terms

NOTremoves results containing specified keywords

Examples:

#1
"major depression" AND "primary care"

#2
screen* OR feedback

#3
(screen* OR feedback)

AND
“major depression”

AND
“primary care”

#4

"major depression" NOT suicide

" " 
To search for specific phrases, enclose them in quotation marks. The database will search for those words together in that order.

Examples:

primary care

major depression

TRUNCATION

Truncate a word in order to search for different forms of the same word. Many databases use the asterisk * as the truncation symbol.

Examples:

Add the truncation symbol to the word screen* to search for screen, screens, screening, etc.

You do have to be careful with truncation. If you add the truncation symbol to the word minor*, the database will search for minor, minors, minority, minorities, etc.

Not all databases support proximity searching. You can use these strategies in ProQuest databases such as Sociological Abstracts.

pre/# is used to search for terms in proximity to each other in a specific order; # is replaced with the number of words permitted between the search terms.

Sample Search: parent* pre/2 educational (within 2 words & in order)

  • This would retrieve articles with no more than two words between parent* and educational (in this order) e.g. "Parent practices and educational achievement" OR "Parents on Educational Attainment" OR "Parental Values, Educational Attainment" etc.

w/# is used to search for terms in proximity to each other in any order; # is replaced with the number of words permitted between the search terms.

Sample Search: parent* w/3 educational (within 3 words & in any order)

  • This would retrieve articles with no more than three words between parent* and educational (in any order)  e.g. "Educational practices of parents" OR "Parents value motivation and education" OR "Educational attainments of Latino parents"