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Systematic searching: 6. Building search strings

Building search strings

Once you have compiled a comprehensive list of keywords and database-specific subject headings as well as considered possible fields for targeting keywords, you should now use different search techniques to combine your search terms into search strings. It is advisable to form separate search strings for each database since different databases work slightly differently. You can write down your search strings in a tabular format, broken down into groups of terms.

Search techniques

  • Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT.
    • NOTE. The NOT operator is rarely used in systematic searches, since it might remove relevant documents from your search results.
  • parentheses ()
  • truncation *  ?
  • phrase searching " "
  • adjacency operators, e.g. N1, W/1

Always check the database's instructions to find out which search tools are available and how to use them.

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills

Examples of final search strings for different databases, broken down into groups of terms. Combine the groups of terms with the Boolean operator AND. 


“Students, Nursing”[Mesh] OR “Education, Nursing”[Mesh] OR “nursing student*”[tw] OR “student nurs*”[tw] OR “nursing pupil*”[tw] OR “pupil nurs*”[tw] OR “nursing education*”[tw]

"Hand Hygiene"[Mesh] OR handwash*[tw] OR “hand wash*”[tw] OR “hand hygiene”[tw] OR “hand sanitat*”[tw] OR “hand sanitiz*”[tw] OR “hand disinfect*”[tw] OR “surgical scrubbing”[tw]

“Professional Competence"[Mesh] OR "Mental Competency"[Mesh] OR "Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice"[Mesh] OR competen*[tw] OR skill*[tw] OR knowledge*[tw] OR know-how[tw] OR knowhow[tw]

Scopus nurs* W/2 (student* OR educat* OR pupil*) handwash* OR “surgical scrubbing” OR (hand W/2 (wash* OR hygien* OR sanitat* OR sanitiz* OR disinfect*)) competen* OR skill* OR knowledge* OR know-how OR knowhow

(MH "Students, Nursing+") OR (MH "Education, Nursing+") OR (nurs* N2 (student* OR educat* OR pupil*))

(MH "Handwashing") OR (MH "Surgical Scrubbing") OR handwash* OR “surgical scrubbing” OR (hand N2 (wash* OR hygien* OR sanitat* OR sanitiz* OR disinfect*))

(MH "Professional Competence+") OR (MH "Clinical Competence+") OR (MH "Student Knowledge") OR (MH "Nursing Knowledge") OR competen* OR skill* OR knowledge* OR know-how OR knowhow