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Systematic searching: Documenting the search

Documenting and reporting the search process

Systematic searching involves documenting and reporting the search terms and the search process in a transparent and reproducible manner. Documentation should start at an early stage of the search. In particular, attention must be paid to the accurate documentation and reporting of searches for systematic reviews.

  • The outline of the search is described in the methodology section of the study. The search strategies are included in the appendices in full and exactly as they were typed into each database. Only the final search strategies are reported; experiments carried out while building your search do not need to be reported, but it is good practice to keep all details in file.

The methodology section

In the methodology section of your study, it is recommended to report:

  • in which databases you searched and when the search took place,
  • the main search terms used,
  • what complementary search methods you used: e.g. citation chaining (browsing reference lists, checking who has cited a study), search alerts, grey literature, contacts with experts,
  • the total number of search results found and the number of results that remained to be assessed after the initial screening process.

NOTE: Thesis guidelines may have different reporting requirements, so always check them first and act accordingly.

An example:

A screenshot from the search methods section of study mentioned below. The databases, search strings and limiters are presented.

Refence:  Ho LLK, Li WHC, Cheung AT, Xia W. Effectiveness of smoking cessation interventions for smokers with chronic diseases: A systematic review. J Adv Nursing. 2021;77(8):3331–42. 

The appendices

The search process should be documented in a transparent manner so that it is easily reproduced by anyone. Therefore, it is good practice to include the search strategies in the appendices of the report, in full and exactly as they were typed into each database.

Search strategies can be copied from the search histories of databases and saved e.g. in a Word document. Remember to record

  • the name of the database,
  • the name of the search engine or database host or platform,
  • the date of the search,
  • the number of results.

An example

CINAHL Complete (EBSCOhost)
31 December 2019
Number of results: 4,414

A screenshot from search history from CINAHL database. Search strings and number of results are presented.