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Systematic searching: Documenting the search

Documenting and reporting the search process

Systematic searching involves documenting and reporting the search terms and the search process in a transparent and reproducible manner. Documentation should start at an early stage of the search. In particular, attention must be paid to the accurate documentation and reporting of searches for systematic reviews.

The outline of the search is described in the methodology section of the study. The search strategies are included in the appendices, in full and exactly as they were typed into each database. Only the final search strategies are reported; experiments carried out while designing search do not need to be reported, but it is good practice to keep all details in file.

The number of search results is needed to describe the selection process. This is usually done using a PRISMA flowchart.

PRISMA for Searching (PRISMA-S), a 16-item checklist, can be used to help document and report searches.

The methodology section

In the methodology section of your study, it is recommended to report:

  • which databases you searched and when the search took place,
  • the main search terms used,
  • what complementary search methods you used: e.g. citation chaining (browsing reference lists, checking who has cited a study),  search alerts, grey literature, contacts with experts,
  • the total number of search results found and the number of results that remained to be assessed after the initial screening process.

NOTE: Thesis guidelines may have different reporting requirements, so always check them first and act accordingly.

Examples

Reference: Østergaard HK, Mechlenburg I, Launonen AP, Vestermark MT, Mattila VM, Ponkilainen VT. The Benefits and Harms of Early Mobilization and Supervised Exercise Therapy after Non-surgically Treated Proximal Humerus or Distal Radius fracture: A systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2021 Apr;14(2):107-129. 

Refence:  Ho LLK, Li WHC, Cheung AT, Xia W. Effectiveness of smoking cessation interventions for smokers with chronic diseases: A systematic review. J Adv Nursing. 2021;77(8):3331–42. 
  

Reference: Yu L, Yang S, Zhang C, Guo P, Zhang X, Xu M, et al. Decision aids for prenatal testing: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. J Adv Nursing. 2021;77(10):3964–79.

Reference: Tihtonen K, Korhonen P, Isojärvi,J, Ojala R, Ashorn U, Ashorn P, Tammela O. Calcium supplementation during pregnancy and maternal and offspring bone health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci..2021. 

The appendices

The search process should be documented in a transparent manner and so that it is easily reproduced by anyone. Therefore it is good practice to include the search strategies in the appendices of the report, in full and exactly as they were typed into each database.

Search strategies can be copied from the search histories of databases and saved e.g. in a Word document. Remember to record

  • the name of the database,
  • the name of the search engine or database host or platform,
  • the date of the search,
  • the number of results.

Examples

CINAHL Complete (EBSCOhost)
31 December 2019
Number of results: 4,414

JBI EBP Database <Current to August 25, 2021> (OvidSP)
31 August 2021
Number of results: 21

1    child abuse.sh.    0
2    shaken baby syndrome.sh.    0
3    ((child$ or newborn$ or adolesc$ or teenage$ or infant$ or newborn$ or baby or babies or pediatr$ or paediatr$) adj5 (abus$ or maltreat$ or mistreat$ or neglect$ or assault$)).mp. [mp=text, heading word, subject area node word, title]    69
4    ((child$ or adolesc$ or teenage$ or infant$ or newborn$ or baby or babies or pediatr$ or paediatr$) adj5 punish*).mp. [mp=text, heading word, subject area node word, title]    5
5    ((child$ or adolesc$ or teenage$ or infant$ or newborn$ or baby or babies or pediatr$ or paediatr$) adj5 ((corporal$ or physical$) adj3 punish$)).mp. [mp=text, heading word, subject area node word, title]    0
6    ((domestic violence or intimate partner violence) and (child$ or adolesc$ or teenage$ or infant$ or newborn$ or baby or babies or pediatr$ or paediatr$)).mp.    29
7    shaken baby syndrome.mp. [mp=text, heading word, subject area node word, title]    0
8    1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7    93
9    limit 8 to (systematic reviews and yr="2014 -Current")        21

 

Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials
Interface/URL: Wiley Cochrane Library
Database coverage dates: Issue 9 of 12, September 2020
Search date: 7 September 2020
Number of results retrieved: 1240
Search strategy:

#1                  [mh Pregnancy]                  21748

#2                  [mh ^“Pregnant Women”]   258

#3                  (pregnan* or gestation* or antenatal* or prenatal* or postconception* or ante NEXT natal* or pre NEXT natal* or post NEXT conception*) 75982

#4                  #1 OR #2 OR #3                76187

#5                  [mh ^”Calcium, Dietary”]    1546

#6                  [mh ^calcium]                     3399

#7                  calcium         30312

#8                  #5 OR #6 OR #7                30312

#9                  #4 AND #8 in Trials            1240

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