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Systematic searching: 9. Evaluating the search result

Evaluating the search result

The appropriate number of search results is not straightforward, especially when doing a systematic review. If the topic has been studied extensively, the set of search results will naturally be large. If, on the other hand, there has been very little research on the topic, you may need to broaden your search to find all the articles that at least touch on the topic. 

Your main focus should be on justifying your search results in your report based on your carefully formulated search plan. 

Evaluating your search terms and search strings

Once you have completed your search, it is worthwhile to look at the results and reflect further:

  • Do the search results match what you searched for?
  • Are there any relevant terms missing from the search?
  • Are all the terms used relevant and useful for the search?
  • Are there more terms in the search results that you could add to your own search?
  • Do any terms consistently produce unwanted search results?

You can evaluate your search with the PRESS checklist, a condensed version has been produced by the Karolinska Institutet. If you wish, you can consult the original checklist (see Table 1 in the linked publication). 

In our example topic, "Nursing students' hand hygiene skills", one could consider if it is necessary to include terms related to skills in the search, or whether it is sufficient to search using only the terms "nursing students" and "hand hygiene". If you search using search terms already related to nursing education or student nurses, do all search results already automatically relate to skills or competencies acquired during studies, without including terms related to skills or competencies? 

Testing your search string

It is advisable to test and review your search string before running your final search. 

  • Have you found e.g. relevant articles through manual or preliminary searches or from your tutor that were not included in your database search results? If so, you should re-evaluate the comprehensiveness of your search string, since a systematic search should locate all relevant documents on a topic. 
  • You can compare your search strategy with other search strategies on the same topic. Search strategies can be found in systematic reviews and their protocols, for example in the Cochrane Library or the JBI EBP database. Systematic reviews can also be searched in MEDLINE and CINAHL by using e.g. "systematic review" as a search term. You can also try searching for systematic reviews in Oula-Finna using the international e-material tab by adding "systematic review" as a search term. The protocol of the review is often linked to the review itself.                                           


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