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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.

Test & Optimise Searches: Simple to Complex Method

When searching complex research questions, it is best to begin with smaller, simpler searches, testing them as you go. Then, combine the tested search strings as required. 

Some consider it best practice to search one concept at a time and combine concepts using the database's search history.

Not only does this strategy ensure your searches are working effectively, and highlight any mistakes such as spelling, ineffective truncation, or incorrect Boolean logic, it also makes editing and updating them more effective and accurate. 

Using our Cyberbullying search in EbscoHost, here is an example using the search history tool to combine single topic (single box) searches. 

See below we have combined S2 AND S3 AND S5 AND S7 to create a complex search. 

Testing Searches

Testing against Gold Sets

Refer to the Scoping Searches & Gold Sets page in this guide to learn about collecting a Gold Set of articles with which you can test your searches. 

Once you have a Gold Set of relevant articles, you can test your search strategies to see if the articles appear in the results. This way you can be sure you are on the right track. Follow these steps for testing against your Gold Set:

  1. Run a title search for one article in your Gold Set to make sure it is indexed there. 
  2. If the article is listed, run your final search strategy in the database.
  3. To check that the search strategy finds the Gold Set article, go to your search history, and combine the search strategy results with the Gold Set article using the AND search.
  4. Do this for each article in your Gold Set. If an article is present in the database but not in your results, you know that the search strategy needs further refinement.
  5. You can now repeat the same test across multiple databases. 

You can see in the Cyberbullying example from EbscoHost below, that the combination of our final search strategy (S5) with a TITLE search (S6) from our gold set produces one result (S7). This confirms that our strategy works for this article. The more articles you test in this way the more confident you can be about the quality of your search. 


PRESS Checklist

Consider using the PRESS Checklist from the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. The form will help you check for typos and errors in syntax and logic and the correct use of subject headings and filters.

Optimising the Search

Have you included all possible relevant synonyms?

  • Look at other literature and systematic reviews, articles from your Gold Sets, and other articles you've already found, and mine for relevant keywords and subject headings. 
  • You might want to check again MeSH headings, BMI Blocks, database thesauri, other online thesauri, or even Wikipedia for possible synonyms. 
  • Make sure you've included all possible spellings and variant forms of key terms as well as related abbreviations and acronyms. 
  • Have you included technical terms and closely related terms where appropriate? You might even want to include common brand names if relevant. 

Have you included all the listed subject headings?

  • Double check Search Filters, MeSH browser, and BMI Blocks for subject headings you may have missed. 
  • Look at subject headings and keywords in the records of articles and other reviews you've already found. Often, you'll find these as hyperlinks in the database record of each article. 

Have you retrieved an appropriate number of results?

  • Go to the Managing and Appraising pages in this guide for information about screening, selecting, and deduplicating your results. 
  • If you have too few results, check again for errors. However, you might also need to broaden your search a little. This may mean using fewer topics in your search string or editing the search terms. You might need more synonyms for that topic or the terms you are using are too specific. 
  • If you have too many results, check again for errors. Otherwise, you can narrow the search by including another topic in your search string so that it finds a more relevant set of results, which match your review question.  Or you may need to make the search terms more specific. 
  • Look also at the use of Search Fields, Limiters, and Refinement tools built into each database. You may need to narrow or broaden the search using these options. 

Ask others to check your results