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Systematic Reviews for Health: Documenting Search Strategies

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

Documenting Search Strategies

Documenting search strategies is part of the Search for studies step.

The search process needs to be documented in enough detail throughout the process to ensure that it can be reported correctly in the review, to the extent that all the searches of all the databases are reproducible. It should be borne in mind at the outset that the full search strategies for each database will need to be included in an Appendix of the review. The search strategies will need to be copied and pasted exactly as run and included in full, together with the search set numbers and the number of records retrieved. (Cochrane Handbook, 4.5)

TIP!  Start documenting the search process from day one and continue to the end.

TIP!  Create an account with the databases that you search and save your searches.

Documenting Search Results

You will need to keep track of:

  • Databases searched, including database provider/platform (eg. OVID Medline, ProQuest PsycINFO, Ebsco CINAHL)
  • Date search was conducted
  • Search strategy: subject headings and keywords used, including whether terms were exploded, truncated, and how terms were combined
    TIP!  Copy and past the search exactly as run and include in full, including numbers of records retrieved
  • Years searched
  • Filters used
  • Number of results retrieved for each search
  • Total number of records 
  • Duplicates identified
  • Numbers pre-screening and post-screening

In addition, all searches conducted via handsearching must identify the source (name of journal, conference proceedings, etc), plus the years.

TIP!  Save locally or file print copies of any information found on the internet, such as information about ongoing trials.


Examples of documented search methodologies:

Resources For Documenting Search Results

Other universities have developed templates to help with the documentation process:

PRISMA Statement

Cochrane strongly encourage that review authors include a study flow diagram as recommended by the PRISMA statement.

Example: PRISMA 2020 flow diagram for new systematic reviews which included searches of databases and registers only:

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