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Systematic reviews: Search

Library services: literature searching for a systematic review

Extensive online resources on how to search the literature

Individual search tutorials for SVHM staff (login required): 

  • 1 hour tutorials currently online via Zoom
  • searching Ovid Medline with a topic of your choice
  • can include information on record keeping for systematic reviews
  • limited follow up consultations around review processes, Covidence etc

Please keep in mind that these tutorials are designed to teach you generic literature searching skills. With the exception of co-authorship, library staff do not design final search strategies for a systematic review which takes considerably longer to refine. Contact us to book a tutorial or find out more.

Top tips: work smart, not harder

Perfect your search in Ovid Medline first

  • If you know how to search the Ovid interface then you won't have a problem with Embase, Emcare and PsycINFO. This makes the process EASIER.
  • Ovid Medline ALL = Pubmed. You do not need to search both.
  • You may need to explore search terms using text mining if the topic is tricky
  • Refine, test, refine, test, refine .... you will almost certainly go through multiple drafts before finalising your search strategy
  • Do not move on to any other databases until you are completely happy with the Medline search. This will SAVE YOU TIME.

 Translate your Medline search strategy into other databases

  • Ovid databases use the same basic syntax/commands eg .ti,ab. to search title and abstract
  • Subject headings will be different in every database and need to be checked each time
  • Use Polyglot Search Translator to change syntax/commands to databases on other platforms eg CINAHL (EBSCOhost), Cochrane (Wiley)

Record your methods as you go

  • In a Word document record:
    • full database name eg Ovid MEDLINE(R) ALL 1946 to August 17, 2021
    • full search strategy
    • date searched and number of results in each database
    • total results from all databases before removing duplicates
    • total results from all databases after removing duplicates
  • This takes very little time as you go, but is impossible to recreate later

Don't read all the results every time you search a database - get rid of duplicates first

  • Scan the first 100 or so titles and abstracts in each database to make sure your strategy is relevant
  • Export ALL search results from each database to Endnote
  • Remove duplicates in Endnote
  • Look at each record ONCE

Recording your search methodology

There are times when you will need to record and share your search methodology, especially in the context of study or writing for publication. In addition to saving your search strategy in the database itself so you can run it again later, we strongly suggest keeping records in a Word document as you go.

Records to keep for a systematic review or similar publication

  • full name of the database
    • eg Ovid MEDLINE(R) ALL 1946 to August 26, 2020.  In Ovid this is available just above the search box
  • full search strategy
    • In Ovid go to your saved search in My Workspace > My Searches & Alerts
    • Click on the 'eye' icon above your saved search to find a format free version of your search strategy to cut and paste.
    • at minimum keep a screenshot that you can type out neatly later
  • date you carried out the search
  • number of results retrieved on that day

It takes very little effort to record this information at the time, but it is impossible to recreate it later.

This is how a record might look for our sample search:

Ovid MEDLINE(R) ALL 1946 to August 28, 2020

Last searched 1 September, 2020 (1200 results)

1. exp *Dementia/    
2. (dementia or alzheimer*).ti,ab.    
3. 1 or 2    
4. *Aggression/    
5. *Violence/    
6. (aggress* or violen*).ti,ab.   
7. 4 or 5 or 6    
8. 3 and 7    
9. limit 8 to (english language and yr="2010 -Current")

This search strategy is easily replicated by another person. Note the inclusion of:

  • both MeSH subject headings and title/abstract textword searches. 
  • neatly grouped concepts
  • use of AND/OR
  • very basic limits - just language and year. See further information for removing animal studies.

If you are searching multiple databases for a review you will need to keep these records for every database you search. Strategies will differ from one database to another due to different subject headings and syntax/commands.

Key databases to search for systematic reviews

For most systematic reviews we recommend searching all of these bibliographic databases:

Depending on the topic, you may also like to search trial registers such as or other grey literature resources

Summary of key bibliographic health databases

The following diagram shows the type of content, and a rough idea of the overlap, of key databases. It demonstrates the need for multiple databases to be included in a comprehensive literature search, but it does not attempt to be exact or exhaustive. Databases change constantly and there are many layers of duplication.

Database content - broader than you think

Keep in mind that the specialty area of a database is very broad, and it indicates the types of journals indexed rather than the specific content. For example a nursing and allied health database will still include articles on general medicine, psychology and radiology which are published in nursing and allied health journals. Likewise, there are many nursing related topics in Medline and PsycINFO. Medline and Embase cover an extremely wide range of topics.