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Systematic reviews

A guide to systematic reviews for health and social sciences

Document and report the search

Step One - Documenting searches

When you are conducting your searches, keep track of what you are doing by documenting your search process in enough detail to ensure that your search process is transparent and reproducible and it can be reported correctly in the review. Begin documenting your searches from day one and continue to the end.

It's best practice to log the database name, description, latest update/version and search date for every search. 

Documentation of your search strategy should include:

  • Databases searched, including database provider/platform (eg. Ebsco Medline, Ebsco PsycINFO, Ebsco ERIC)
  • Date search was conducted or latest update/version
  • Search strategy: subject headings and keywords used, including whether terms were exploded, truncated, and how terms were combined
    TIP!  Copy and past the Search History box or search string into a word document exactly as run. This should include terms used how they were entered and combined and the 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

Step Two Reporting searches

There are a number of places where searches can be reported. These include the appendix, the review abstract, the methods section or the results section. Below are some examples that show these different models:

A systematic review published in Cochrane provides full search strategies for all database searches in the Appendices:

  • Bath, P.M.W. & Krishnan, K. (2014). Interventions for deliberately altering blood pressure in acute stroke. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 10. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000039.pub3.

A systematic review published in Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology provides a summary of sources searched and keywords used in the Sources section:

  • McIntyre, S., Taitz, D., Keogh, J., Goldsmith, S., Badawi, N. & Blair, E. (2013). A systematic review of risk factors for cerebral palsy in children born at term in developed countries. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 55, 6, 499-508.

Source: University of Tasmania Systematic Review Guide Guide to Documenting Search Strategies

PRISMA Flowchart

PRISMA  (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses), is a standard that provides guidance for the reporting of Systematic Reviews. It is standard now to use the PRISMA Checklist and flow chart in Health and increasingly in Social Sciences. The checklist relates to the content of a systematic review and meta-analysis, which include the title, abstract, methods, results, discussion and funding. It is advisable to use the recently updated PRISMA 2020 flow diagram for further documentation of the number of records identified by database searching and through other sources. The flow diagram depicts the flow of information through the different phases of a systematic review. It maps out the number of records identified, included and excluded, and the reasons for exclusions. 

Save searches/set up alerts

When you have constructed your systematic search you can sign into the database by creating an account, which allows you to save searches and also to create them as alerts so you are notified when new articles which match your search are added to the database. Saving a search saves you from re-entering terms and will allow you to edit and refine your searches - it will also save you a lot of time!

Databases allow you to save your searches. This means you can easily run them again to see what new articles have been added to the database. It is best to have a personal account with each main database provider. This is separate to your ACU student ID and login.

This allows you to directly:

  • save preferences
  • organise your research with folders
  • share your folders with others
  • save and retrieve your search history
  • create email alerts and/or RSS feeds

Alerts are an effective means of keeping track of the latest research. Many databases and journals offer free alert services through emails and RSS feeds. Types of alerts include:

  • Search alerts - this is a saved search which alerts you when a book or article that matches your search terms is published
  • Table of Contents (TOC) alert, which provides the table of contents of a newly published issue of a particular journal
  • Citation alerts which let you know when a particular article is cited by a new article.

Manage search results

After you have conducted your searches, you will find it much easier to manage your search results using bibliographic management software such as EndNote or Mendeley. It may help researchers store, organise, and manage the potentially large number of literature found during the search process.

Bibiliographic management software can automate tedious steps like finding full text articles in bulk and de-duplicating records. When you export your results from each database, there are a number of essential fields you should download.

They include:

  • Abstract
  • Affiliation of the authors
  • Digital object identifier (DOI)
  • Clinical trial number (if available)
  • Language
  • Any comments that are available or subject headings that are assigned.

Check out ACU Library's EndNote Subject Guide to download the software and for user guides.

For more information including tutorial videos and online classes, check the Clarivate Analytics' EndNote Guide.

There are also guides on using EndNote with systematic reviews, see the University of Sydney library guide or University of Tasmania library guide.