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Systematic searching: 6. Building search strings

Building the search strings

Once you have compiled a comprehensive list of keywords and database-specific subject headings,  and considered possible fields for focusing the keywords, use the search tools to combine your search terms into search strings. It is advisable to tailor the searches to suit each database, as all databases work slightly differently.
Search strings can be recorded in a tabular format, broken down into groups of terms. Careful construction of the search strings will help to achieve the most appropriate search results.

Search tools

  • Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT.
    • NOTE. The NOT operator is rarely used in systematic searches, because it might end up relevant articles not being found.
  • parentheses ()
  • truncation *  ?
  • phrase searching " "
  • adjacency operators, e.g. N1, W/1

Always check the database instructions to find out which search tools are available and how to use them.

PubMed instructions

Example topic

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Examples of final search strings for different databases. 


“Students, Nursing”[Mesh] OR “Education, Nursing”[Mesh] OR “nursing student*”[tw] OR “student nurs*”[tw] OR “nursing pupil*”[tw] OR “pupil nurs*”[tw] OR “nursing education*”[tw]

"Hand Hygiene"[Mesh] OR handwash*[tw] OR “hand wash*”[tw] OR “hand hygiene”[tw] OR “hand sanitat*”[tw] OR “hand sanitiz*”[tw] OR “hand disinfect*”[tw] OR “surgical scrubbing”[tw]

“Professional Competence"[Mesh] OR "Mental Competency"[Mesh] OR "Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice"[Mesh] OR competen*[tw] OR skill*[tw] OR knowledge*[tw] OR know-how[tw] OR knowhow[tw]

Scopus nurs* W/2 (student* OR educat* OR pupil*) handwash* OR “surgical scrubbing” OR (hand W/2 (wash* OR hygien* OR sanitat* OR sanitiz* OR disinfect*)) competen* OR skill* OR knowledge* OR know-how OR knowhow

(MH "Students, Nursing+") OR (MH "Education, Nursing+") OR (nurs* N2 (student* OR educat* OR pupil*))

(MH "Handwashing") OR (MH "Surgical Scrubbing") OR handwash* OR “surgical scrubbing” OR (hand N2 (wash* OR hygien* OR sanitat* OR sanitiz* OR disinfect*))

(MH "Professional Competence+") OR (MH "Clinical Competence+") OR (MH "Student Knowledge") OR (MH "Nursing Knowledge") OR competen* OR skill* OR knowledge* OR know-how OR knowhow



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