VU Systematic Literature Reviews: Building and documenting your search strategy

Concept maps

A concept map will help you visualize related terms. Read about concept maps or try a concept mapping tool using the links below.

Find examples of existing search strategies

You can find details of search strategies others have used by looking at previous examples of systematic reviews. Published systematic reviews will often contain a description of the terms used or an example search strategy from one of the databases. You can use a published search to help formulate your own strategy.  Look for the search strategy published on the following sites:

Search strategies will usually show the database-specific syntax and field codes as well as the terms used and the operators used to combine them.  

Below is an excerpt from a published Cochrane systematic review:

Birnie KA, Noel M, Chambers CT, Uman LS, Parker JA. Psychological interventions for needle‐related procedural pain and distress in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD005179. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005179.pub4

Search strategy for CINAHL

S1 needle and pain and children

S2 AB needle and AB pain and AB children

S3 AB needle* OR inject* OR vaccin* OR lumbar puncture* OR bone marrow OR spinal tap OR intravenous OR venepuncture* OR venipuncture* OR catheter* OR puncture* OR thoracentes* OR paracentes* OR central line*

S4 AB child* OR youth* or teen* or adolescen* OR infant*

S5 AB pain* OR hurt* OR anxiety OR anxious OR distress* OR discomfort* OR fear*

Documenting your search

Developing a search that informs a systematic review is an iterative process. The reason why we encourage you to carry out your search in a step-by-step process as outlined below, is so that you can clearly document your search as you go and monitor its effectiveness. When the search is organised in this way, you can easily spot mistakes by looking at the number of search results for each term. You can also identify which terms add value to the search. Keep an eye out for searches returning zero results (they are not adding "value" or there is a mistake) and searches returning a very high number of results (term may be too broad). If you decide to remove a term, make a note of why.

It is important to constantly look at the search results to determine whether the results are relevant. As soon as you have developed your search strategy, you should test your strategy to work out whether already identified key articles are being found by the search. If not, review and revise your search strategy by adding any missing terms and re-run the search if necessary.

It is highly recommended that you save your search strategy to your database account so that you can retrieve it at any time. Most database providers offer the option of creating a personal account:

Once signed in you can save a search strategy to rerun at a later date, or set the frequency of automatic updates.


Build your search strategy


1. Carry out separate searches for each free-text term and subject heading in Concept 1 of Concept Table.
For example, in MEDLINE (via EBSCOHost) where the field code TX denotes 'all text' and code MH denotes 'exact subject heading':

#1 TX paediatric 
#2 TX pediatric
#3 MH pediatrics
#4 TX child*
#5 TX infant
#6 TX toddler
#7 MH child
#8 MH infant

2. Combine all individual searches for Concept 1 with OR:

#9 #1 OR #2 OR #3 OR #4 OR #5 OR #6 OR #7 OR #8

Either type as below, or use go to Search History, select searches #1 to #8 and Search with OR. This will give you search #9:

TX paediatric OR TX pediatric OR MH pediatrics OR TX child* OR TX infant OR TX toddler OR MH child OR MH infant 


3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for all other concepts.


4. Combine the OR searches for each concept with AND:

#58  #9 AND #30 AND #47 AND #57

Either type as below, or use go to Search History, select searches #9, #30, #47 and #57 and Search with AND. This will give you search #58:

(MH infant OR MH child OR TX toddler OR TX infant OR TX child* OR MH paediatrics OR TX pediatric OR TX paediatric) AND (MH internet-based intervention OR TX distraction OR TX distraction w3 techniques OR TX distraction w3 intervention OR MH attention OR TX attention OR MH cognitive behavioural therapy OR TX cognitive techniques OR TX listening w3 music OR MH music OR TX talk* OR TX behavioural w3 techniques OR TX video* OR TX computer OR TX games OR TX interactive books OR TX interactive toys OR TX virtual reality OR MH virtual reality) AND (TX Pain OR MH pain OR MH pain threshold OR MH pain perception OR MH pain management OR TX anxiety OR MH anxiety OR TX needle-related pain OR TX immunization pain OR TX immunisation pain OR MH psychological distress OR TX distress OR MH crying OR TX crying OR TX procedural pain OR MH pain, procedural) AND (MH immunization OR TX immunization OR TX immunisation OR MH vaccination OR TX vaccination OR MH needles OR TX needles OR MH injections OR TX injections)