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ACAP Library Pathfinder: Systematic Searching for a Review

This guide provides a methodology for planning and creating a multi-database search strategy for students who are writing a review.

Advanced Searching Techniques

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:

  1. Use the Advanced Search boxes to structure your search and make editing easier. 
  2. Employ Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT together with the search boxes or in conjunction with brackets.
  3. Refine the search by using truncation and phrase searching and, in some cases, proximity searching to focus your search. 
  4. Select search fields. Use a combination of options such as Title, Abstract, and Subject Headings to improve relevancy. 
  5. Adjust the search using each database's built-in limiters (Refine Results menus). 

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?

Advanced Searching Tools

The search boxes provide options to construct a more focused search and adjust it more easily.

Use one box for each of the main topic areas you are looking for. In the example below, we've used four boxes, one for each topic but have not included any other tools or key terms yet. To include more topics, most databases allow for the addition of search boxes.

Search Boxes

Go to Step 2: Boolean Operators

Between each search box, choose the appropriate Boolean operator to connect search terms.

In the search below, the AND operator is selected in the drop-down menus and OR operators are typed in the search boxes between synonyms. The more search terms you separate with OR operators the wider and more comprehensive the search. The more terms you connect with AND operators the smaller but more relevant your results will be. 

Use the NOT operator to exclude an irrelevant term from your search.

Note that some databases require Booleans to be entered in uppercase. 

Go to Step 3: Refinement Tools

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

Use the ‘Select a field’ drop down menus to tell the database where to look for search terms.

Adjust these fields if the search results are too limited. Also try mixing and matching across the search boxes as some fields will work better with different keywords. Below is a brief definition of some of the common fields:

  • Select a Field or Any Field - Will look through all sections of item records for keywords. This will deliver a larger, more comprehensive set of results.
  • All Text - Will look through the entire full-text of the items. This will deliver the largest set of results but they may not always be the most relevant.
  • Author - Use when you want to search for a particular author or theorist. Begin by just using the author's surname.
  • Title - Will just search through the titles of the items in the database. This will bring back a much smaller and relevant set of results.
  • Subject terms - Will look through the subject tags attached to each record. Again, this will retrieve a smaller more relevant list of results.
  • Abstract - When looking for journal articles, limiting to an abstract search will often result in a more relevant, yet comprehensive search. The abstract is the summary found at the beginning of a research article.

Go to Step 5: Refine Results Menu

After selecting the search button and retrieving a results list, a Refine Results or Limiters menu will appear usually down the left or right hand side of the page. This menu has built in facets with which to easily refine the results and deliver a more relevant list. A few ways of limiting the search include:

  • Full-text: Ticking the full-text option filters a search to resources subscribed to by the library and so, you will have immediate access. However, you may choose to expand the number of results by unticking this option (you may then need to look for non-subscription items elsewhere or request via the interlibrary loan service). 
  • Peer Review: If unsure about how to access only scholarly material, limit the results to just peer reviewed studies.
  • Date: To look at recent research and publications, limit by date from the Publication Date field.
  • Facets: Make use of the limiting facets produced by the database. These are based on the metadata from a results list. Subject or Thesaurus terms are often a good place to start in order to make results a little more relevant but there is often a variety of other options to choose from such as methodology, gender, age, geography, publication type and so on.


Example: Complete Search Strategy

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.

Title field: cyberbull* OR cybervictim* OR anti-cyberbullying OR e-bullying


Title field: (harassment OR bully* victim* OR aggression OR violence OR mobbing OR troll* ) AND ( cyber OR online OR "social media" OR "social networking" OR virtual OR digital OR internet OR facebook OR twitter OR tiktok OR instagram OR smartphone OR phone OR text OR sms) 


Title/Subject/Abstract fields: adolesc* OR teen* OR "young adults" OR youth OR students OR juvenile*


Title field: psychoeducation* OR program OR intervention OR curricul* OR training OR initiative OR school OR education* OR classroom OR instruction OR learning OR teach* OR project OR plan

Comparison option: Title field: therap* OR psychotherap* OR counsel* OR "acceptance and commitment therapy" OR ACT OR "cognitive behav* therapy" OR CBT 


Title/Subject/Abstract fields: "mental health" OR wellbeing OR well-being OR "self esteem" OR trauma* OR suicid* OR "academic achievement" OR loneliness OR isolation OR truancy OR anger OR confidence OR anxiety OR depression OR "psychological impact"


Title/Subject/Abstract fields: benefit* OR alleviate* OR improv* OR reduc* OR prevent* OR effectiv* OR efficacy OR evidence OR impact OR evaluat*

Using Search Filters (Hedges)

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.  


("Qualitative Studies" OR "Thematic Analysis" OR "Content Analysis" OR "Focus Groups" OR  "Ethnographic Research" OR "Field Studies" OR "Narratives" OR "Multimethod Studies" OR "Observational Methods" OR "Audiorecording" OR "Semi-Structured Interview" OR "Unstructured Interview") OR TI ( “thematic analys*” OR “content analys*” OR “focus group*” OR ethnograph* OR ethnograf* OR etnograf* OR “field stud*” OR phenomenolog* OR narration* OR narrative OR “qualitative stud*” OR “qualitative analys*” OR “qualitative research*” OR “qualitative method*” OR multimethodolog* OR “mixed method*” OR observation* OR “grounded theory” OR “audio recording*” OR “tape recording*” OR audiotape* OR ((“semi-structured” OR semistructured OR unstructured OR informal OR “in-depth” OR indepth OR “face-to-face” OR structured OR guide*) AND (interview* OR discussion* OR questionnaire*))) OR AB (“thematic analys*” OR “content analys*” OR “focus group*” OR ethnograph* OR ethnograf* OR etnograf* OR “field stud*” OR phenomenolog* OR narration* OR narrative OR “qualitative stud*” OR “qualitative analys*” OR “qualitative research*” OR “qualitative method*” OR multimethodolog* OR “mixed method*” OR observation* OR “grounded theory” OR “audio recording*” OR “tape recording*” OR audiotape* OR ((“semi-structured” OR semistructured OR unstructured OR informal OR “in-depth” OR indepth OR “face-to-face” OR structured OR guide*) AND (interview* OR discussion* OR questionnaire*)))