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Systematic searching: Building a search strategy

Building a search strategy

Systematic searching requires careful planning. Also keep in mind that you have to be able to repeat and report your searches. 

This section presents a model for building a systematic search strategy consisting of nine steps. Go through the pages of this section in order. You can build a search strategy for your own topic based on this model. In addition, make sure to carefully write down all the different steps so you can report your search process in your final paper. Note, that steps 4. and 5. mainly apply to systematic reviews.

The steps include:

  1. From topic to research questions
  2. Identifying key concepts
  3. Developing free-text search terms
  4. Searching for database-specific subject headings
  5. Targeting the search
  6. Building search strings
  7. Carrying out searches in databases
  8. Search limiters
  9. Evaluating the search result

Note that these steps may also overlap with each other. For example, you may still find new, relevant search terms while carrying out searches in databases. 


  • Aveyard H. Doing a Literature Review in Health and Social Care: A Practical Guide. Fourth edition. London: Open University Press, 2019.

  • Welch Medical Library 2020. PubMed: Building a Search. Available at: [cited 14 May 2021]

  • Welch Medical Library 2020. PubMed: Filters and Field Tags. Available at: [cited14 May 2021]

This section uses an example topic to build a search strategy:

"Nursing students' hand hygiene skills".

Photo: Kristine WookUnsplash

Save your searches

Use a Word file, for example, to keep your search terms and the search phrases you formulate later in the process up to date. A good practice is to also save the search phrases in your own user account in each database.