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Medical Sciences: Search skills for systematic reviews: Selecting your search terms

This tutorial will guide you through the steps required to systematically search for your research projects.

Information sources structure research citations into fields to describe the citation. Common fields are title, author, abstract, keywords or subject. Therefore, searching involves using terms and phrases to search the fields in order to find citations that are likely to be relevant to your research question. It is useful to think of this as a three step process:

  1. Identifying your search terms,
  2. Combining your search terms,
  3. Using search techniques to enhance your search.

 Using a concept map can help you think about your topic and break it down into it's key components.

1. Identify your search terms

Think about your research topic/assignment and break it down into key research topics/concepts. Use those topics/concepts to produce lists of keywords that you can use for online searching.

Take some time to consider and choose your keywords.

You want to use keywords that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

You may find it useful to use techniques such as brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords.

Are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results? 

For example:
If you were researching the failure of small business in the UK you could use the following keywords: failure, success, demise, challenges, risk etc.

As well as searching for the UK, you might also search for United Kingdom, GBGreat Britain etc.

If you are looking for material on the Conservative Government you might also search for the Tory Government

When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.

For example:   globalisation (British spelling)  vs. globalization (American English spelling) 


Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.

For example:  holiday vs. vacation   /      underground vs.subway      

Consider whether  your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary.

Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results.

If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.

Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read? 

 These can be included in your search terms in order to findi matching results. 

For example: 

heart attack / Myocardial infarction and/or MI 

Consider whether there are  key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area.

It may be worth including these 'names' in your searches. 

Your background reading will prove helpful here.   

If you are searching across long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time.   New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.

For example:  tweet or twitter has a dual meaning: 

  1.  posting a short message to the Twitter social media platform
  2.  bird calls or short sharp sounds

Inclusion / Exclusion Criteria

Inclusion and exclusion criteria set the boundaries for your systematic search and consider many different factors. These can include:
  • the topic,
  • the research methods of the studies,
  • specific populations,
  • settings,
  • date limits,
  • geographical areas,
  • types of interventions,
  • or something else.

The inclusion criteria is everything a study must have in order to be included. The exclusion criteria are the factors that would make a study ineligible to be included. They are determined after setting the research question (usually before searching).

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