ACAP LEARNING RESOURCES
Once you have established the review question or thesis statement and have explored the various methods for identifying search terms described earlier in this guide, you can begin to enter these terms into the databases chosen as the best options for your topic.
Balancing sensitivity (finding all possible articles relevant to your topic) and specificity (excluding irrelevant articles and false positives) is crucial when conducting systematic searches. A trade-off exists between the two measures, meaning that increasing sensitivity may reduce specificity and vice versa. Researchers strive to achieve a balance that maximises the retrieval of relevant information while minimising the inclusion of irrelevant articles.
Achieving high sensitivity and specificity requires careful selection of search terms along with the use of the following tools:
The examples below illustrate each of the key points just mentioned. Remember this is just one way of structuring your systematic searches, and they may vary according to the topic, the type of review, and the database you are using. Note also that you may run through multiple iterations of a search before landing on the most effective options.
The examples below will use the research question developed earlier in this guide:
For adolescents, how do educational programs compare to individual therapies, to reduce the negative mental health effects of cyberbullying in secondary schools?
Truncation. To truncate a word, reduce it to its most basic form or root word. Place an asterisk at the end of the root word to find multiple endings. The database will search for all the variant forms of the word, its tenses, plurals and in some cases alternate spellings. For example: counsel* = counselling, counseling, counsellor, counselled, counsel and so on.
Phrases. When a phrase is enclosed by double quotation marks, the exact phrase is searched. You can use this when you are looking for a specific title or for a particular phrase or term. For example: “cognitive behaviour therapy” or "type 2 diabetes".
Proximity Searches. The proximity operator tells the database to search for words within a certain proximity of each other. Each database may have a different code for these operators. Here we are using EbscoHost as an example:
Near Operator (N): N5 finds the words if they are a maximum of five words apart from one another, regardless of the order in which they appear. For example, type tax N5 reform to find results that have a maximum of five words between the beginning and ending terms, that would match tax reform as well as tax that has been submitted for reform.
Within Operator (W): W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another, in the order in which you entered them. For example, type tax W8 reform to find results that would match tax reform but would not match reform of income tax.
Multiple proximity operators can be used in a search expression and multiple terms can be used on either side of each proximity operator. See the following examples: (tax OR tariff) N5 reform; oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination) N5 (fisheries OR habitats).
Go to Step 4: Select Fields
Here is an example of a full and search string for our research question. It is yet to be tested and optimised so may need some editing but it will serve as a starting our main starting point for a final search strategy.
Hedges or prefabricated search filters can be added to your searches either in their original form as shown in the example below or in a myriad of modified ways. They can also just be useful for gathering synonyms and additional search terms to add to your current strategy.
Below is an example using a Search Filter from BMI Blocks for EbscoHost Databases. It limits the results to qualitative studies. The Block can be added as a new line to your existing search strategy.