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Writing a Systematic Review

Developing a Search Strategy

Searching is a cyclical process of trial and error, and you will already have done some exploratory searching before you get to this point in the review process. During protocol development, you will have identified relevant databases, search terms, and studies. These will help you build your systematic search strategy that you will report out in your methods section. The more detailed and transparent you are about this process, the better -- so it helps to keep track along the way. 

  1. Compile relevant databases
    • Identify all the databases (for both published and grey literature) that appear relevant to your topic; plan to search all of them using the same search queries
  2. Compile identified search terms to create search queries
    • When building a search query (combinations of search terms), keep key concepts separate from one another rather than searching in complex phrases
    • String together synonyms for each concept connected with the Boolean operator "OR" -- For example:
      • Population: (Latinx OR Hispanic OR Mexican OR Chicano)
      • Problem/Issue: (acculturative stress OR cultural assimilation OR marginalization OR discrimination)
      • Intervention: (community engagement OR community involvement OR civic engagement)
      • Taken together, this search query might look like: (Latinx OR Hispanic OR Mexican OR Chicano) AND (acculturative stress OR cultural assimilation OR marginalization OR discrimination) AND (community engagement OR community involvement OR civic engagement)
    • Keep a detailed record of all potential search terms.
  3. Add truncations and wildcards
    • Truncations and wildcards can help you enhance your search. For example, Latin* will search for Latinx, Latina, Latino, and Latin@
  4. Test your search queries in your identified databases
    • In EBSCO and Gale platforms, you can search multiple databases together, but it is recommended that you only do this during the testing stage.
    • Keep a log of the various search queries that you try in each database so that you can compare how they perform. 
    • Focus first on the number of results. Is this what you expected? Are you seeing more search results than you expected, or fewer?
    • Test your search strategy with the articles you identified when formulating your research question. Do those articles show up in your search? If not, what is missing from your search strategy that might need to be added?
  5. Tweak your search strategy based on what you find
    • Scan titles and abstracts in your search results to identify terms to include or exclude from your search strategy. Your list of search terms should be dynamic and growing at this stage.
    • Try adding or removing quotation marks from phrases in your search strategy.
  6. Test again, test a LOT
    • Don't get discouraged with this process, especially if you are a beginner. This is part of the process for all researchers. Testing your search strategy is good practice and can take on many iterations, but there's no real right or wrong answer. What's important is that you feel relatively confident that you are capturing the relevant literature.
  7. Adapt search strategies for different databases
    • Truncations and wildcards, and even Boolean operators can vary between databases, so you'll want to adapt your search strategy accordingly. Use the Help link in the databases to identify the wildcards and truncations they use.
  8. Conduct your final search
    • Conduct searches separately in each database.
    • Keep track of the date, the exact strategy used, and the number of search results for each database search. You'll need to report this later.

Don't forget -- Your librarians are here to help! We recommend that you schedule an appointment with a librarian to discuss your search strategy before finalizing the search for your review. 

Advanced Search Strategies




Searching Tips

Test your search methods with articles you know should match. Simply add the article title to the last bar of your search and run it again. If that article doesn't appear, find it in the database. Then look over the words in the abstract and subject terms to determine why you didn't find it. Adjust your search accordingly.

Use the Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) Checklist as a way to review your final search strategy before you conduct your final searches. Often, scholars will go through the PRESS Checklist with a librarian or information professional, as well. 

Document your search. Take advantage of database features to save searches. Keep a record of all your final searches. Consider keeping a PRISMA flow diagram of your work (required by most Systematic Review guidelines).

Keyword Searching Tips: For a systematic review, you want to find all possible versions of your search terms to make sure you don't miss anything. Beyond scouring existing reviews and encyclopedia articles, you also want to make sure you find the appropriate controlled vocabulary for your concepts.

In PubMed, MEDLINE, CINAHL, and other medical databases, search for the appropriate MeSH Terms (Medical Subject Heading Terms). In other databases, you can check to see if there is a thesaurus for your chosen database(s).


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.