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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. 


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.