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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

Following the PRISMA for Searching (PRISMA-Search) checklist ensures that you document all necessary information about the used information sources and search strategies. The PRISMA-S statement / explanatory paper includes exemplar reporting. 

You will need to keep track of:

  • Databases searched, including database provider/platform (e.g. Medline via Ovid, Medline via PubMed, CINAHL via Ebsco)
  • Date search was conducted (and updated)
  • Other resources searched: Study registries, online resources and browsing, citation searching, contacts, other methods
  • Full search strategies – copy  and pasted exactly as run
  • Any limits/restrictions applied and justification for their use
  • Published search filters used
  • Acknowledgement of prior work (adapted or reused search strategies)
  • Search peer review process
  • Total number of records identified from each database and other information sources
  • Deduplication processes and software used


Common questions

This article answers some of the common questions about using the PRISMA 2020 flow diagram, including how to document records identified via other methods, citation searching, Google and Google Scholar.

Rethlefsen, M. L., & Page, M. J. (2022). PRISMA 2020 and PRISMA-S: common questions on tracking records and the flow diagram. J Med Libr Assoc, 110(2), 253-257. 


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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