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Systematic reviews

How to document your search

Your search methodology should document where you looked for information and how many results were found.

Keep track of your activities as you search. It is much harder after the event to justify the decisions you made and to remember what you found in each source.

Consider using our search activity template (DOCX) as a personal record.

What you document depends on your reason for searching the literature. If you are carrying out detailed research for a systematic review you will probably need to provide rigorous documentation of your search process as part of your submission.

If you are unsure, check with your department in case there are local procedures you should be following.

Writing up your search methodology

A search methodology should document your search so that someone else can reproduce your steps and get the same results. Include:

  • the names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid), Web of Science (Thomson Reuters)
  • any grey literature sources you used
  • the date you carried out the searches
  • any search limits you applied eg language, date ranges of publication, types of publication
  • any individuals or organisations you contacted
  • any sources you handsearched

For more detail on the search steps listed above go to our literature searching guide.

To see how you might write up a search methodology, the Cochrane Library has a number of good examples. Search for a systematic review and take a look at how the Methods section has been reported.

Add your search strategy as an appendix

The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline, Web of Science) can be added as an appendix to your document. This will provide the reader with additional detail on:

  • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
  • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
  • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
  • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR).

You can document in your results section the number of results you found in each source.

The following examples show how you could present a search strategy as an appendix:

It is often easier to copy and paste the search history straight from the database rather than retyping it.

Search tip: Many databases allow you to save your search strategies inside a free personal account area. We recommend that you do this. See our advice on saving your search for more information.

Further help

For more help with reporting systematic research, you can refer to the PRISMA website and to their PRISMA flow diagram (under Key Documents) which shows the process of a systematic search.