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Writing a Systematic Review

Where to Search

In order to cover your bases, you'll want to develop and keep track of a thorough search strategy that includes:

  • Databases and indexes

  • Reference lists (from existing systematic reviews & studies chosen for inclusion)

  • Key academic journals

  • Contacting authors, organizations, conferences

  • Grey literature sources (not controlled by commercial publishers), which may include preprints, dissertations, registered trials, conference proceedings, and periodicals.

Search Process

You will likely conduct three main types of searching during this process: 

  • Exploratory

You'll typically start with scoping or exploratory searches. This includes searching for existing reviews and getting a rough idea of the scope of the literature. Note that you don't necessarily need to read the full text of all the literature you find at this stage; scanning abstracts will likely give you a sense of a study's scope, methods, and findings. Exploratory searching is also a way for you to test your search strategy and individual terms before conducting the systematic search. Exploratory searching should guide you in developing your research question and eligibility criteria as well as developing your search strategy. We highly recommend reaching out to a librarian for help with exploratory searching.

  • Systematic

The systematic search is what you will document in the methods section of your paper. Once you have finalized your search strategy, you will conduct that exact search in each of your chosen databases individually. Most rigorous guidelines expect you to document your search, the number of search results per database, and the date on which the search was conducted.

  • Hand or supplementary searching

Hand or supplementary searching is intended to catch relevant articles that may be missed in your systematic search and will occur concurrently with exploratory and systematic searching as well as through the screening stage. This type of search includes directly searching highly relevant journals that may not be indexed in your chosen databases, as well as recently published articles in journals that are indexed but may not show up in the databases yet. It also includes looking at research that does not appear in academic journals, like clinical trials, dissertations, and other grey literature. Once you have determined the articles you will use in your review, you should comb through their reference lists to pick up any citations your own searches may have missed.

Recommended Databases

Best practice for systematic searching recommends searching at least 3 databases including one that is multi-disciplinary.

To help you determine which databases will be best bets for your research questions, you can ask a librarian, but you'll also want to look at existing reviews that ask similar questions to your research question and likely you will want to use a similar list of databases to the ones they report.

View the videos below to learn how to find relevant databases in Spalding's collection. 

Learn More


This guide was adapted from Systematic Reviews by University of Texas Libraries ( which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.