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Systematic Reviews for Health: 11. Adapt Search Syntax

A guide on how a Research Librarian can help you during a systematic review process


Step 11. Adapt Search Syntax for Different Databases

For each database you search, the structure of the search strategy remains the same. However, all databases have a slightly different search interface and offer slightly different search options. It is important that you explore the search options for each database you will search for the systematic review, and adapt the search strategy accordingly.

Controlled vocabulary

Most databases use unique controlled vocabulary to index their articles - for each database adapt the controlled vocabulary terms. For more details on the controlled vocabulary terms for different databases, see Step 4.

Search fields

The fields you can search free-text terms (or the combination of them) vary between the databases. For more details on the search fields available for different databases, see Step 5.

Phrase searching, truncation, wildcards, Boolean and proximity operators

Different databases offer different wildcard characters and commands. For more details on differences between databases for phrase searching, truncation, wildcards, Boolean and proximity operators, see Step 6 and Step 7.


The types of pre-set limits/filters vary across the databases. For more details on limits, see Step 8.

Automation Tools

There are various translation tools available that can help you translate the search strategy from one database to another. 

None of these tools are perfect and you still need to understand how the databases work.

Note!  You need to report on the use of automation tools as per the PRISMA guidelines.

Polyglot Search Translator

The Polyglot Search Translator is a tool for translating search strings from Medline via Ovid or PubMed across multiple databases (CINAHL, Cochrane, Embase, Medline, PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, and Web of Science). It has been developed by the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University.

Note!  Whilst Polyglot translates the syntax for controlled vocabulary terms, it can not automatically map the terms across databases (e.g. MeSH terms to Emtree terms). You need to do this manually.

Medline Transpose

Medline Transpose can help you convert the search syntax between PubMed and Medline via Ovid interfaces. The tool has been developed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia (CPSBC) and the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (PenCLAHRC).

Ovid's Search Translation Tool

This translation tool developed by Ovid helps translate a PubMed search strategy to a Medline via Ovid or Embase via Ovid search strategy.



Controlled vocabulary

As each database has its own indexing system, you need to identify the controlled vocabulary terms for each database separately.

These are the controlled vocabulary terms for Concept 1 for some of our UTAS health databases (note the slightly different spelling): 

MeSH Terms PsycInfo Thesaurus CINAHL Headings Emtree Terms


Alzheimer disease


Alzheimer's disease


Alzheimer's disease


Alzheimer disease

Also, note how the syntax between different databases varies, even if they use the same controlled vocabulary; e.g. demonstrated for the three databases that use MeSH as the controlled vocabulary:

PubMed Ovid Cochrane

Dementia [mh]

Alzheimer disease [mh]

exp dementia/

exp Alzheimer disease/

MeSH descriptor: [Dementia] explode all trees

MeSH descriptor: [Alzheimer Disease] explode all trees

Search fields

Not all databases offer users to customise the search fields as freely as Ovid. Simply try to keep the search fields as consistent as possible. This table lists similar options in UTAS Health databases:

Medline via PubMed dementia [tiab]
Medline via Ovid dementia.ab,kf,ti.
Embase dementia.ab,kw,ti.
PsycINFO dementia.ab,id,ti.
Cochrane dementia:ti,ab,kw
CINAHL TI dementia OR AB dementia
Web of Science TOPIC: (dementia)
Scopus TITLE-ABS-KEY ( dementia ) 

Phrase searching, wildcards and proximity operators

Some databases offer a wider range of proximity operators and wildcards than others; plus the function of the symbols used varies between the databases. It is best to visit the Search Help menu within the relevant database or see

Here are a few examples for the example search to illustrate the difference of symbols and meaning.



Ovid databases behavio?r.ab,kf,ti.

? stands for zero or one character within a word
finds behavior and behaviour

Cochrane behavi*r:ti,ab,kw

* is used to match multiple characters within a word
finds behavior and behaviour

CINAHL behavio#r.ab,kw,ti. # finds all citations of the word that appear with or without the extra character
finds behavior and behaviour
Web of Science TOPIC: (behavio$r)

$ useful for finding British and American spellings of same word
finds behavior and behaviour

Scopus Scopus finds common American/British English variant spellings automatically


Proximity operators

Ovid databases animal adj2 therapy.ab,kf,ti. animal and therapy need to be within 2 words of each other: one or no word between them
Medline via PubMed "animal therapy"[tiab:~2] Finds the terms when maximum number of words between them is two
Cochrane animal near/2 therapy:ti,ab,kw Finds the terms when maximum number of words between them is two
CINAHL (TI animal N2 therapy) OR (AB animal N2 therapy) N2 finds the words if they are within two words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear
Web of Science TOPIC: (animal NEAR/2 therapy) NEAR/2 maximum 2 words separate the terms
Scopus TITLE-ABS-KEY ( animal W/2 therapy )  W/2 finds the terms when they are within 2 words of one another

See source of example


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