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Systematic reviews: Creating a search strategy

A quick guide to introduce you to systematic reviews

The search process

Searches used for systematic reviews require more planning and preparation compared with traditional reviews, to ensure that they are comprehensive and rigorous.

You will first need to define your search question. Using a structure such as PICO can be helpful in planning your strategy. You will have to modify and test your search strategy to ensure that it retrieves relevant studies, so good documentation is essential. 

The databases you choose to search will vary according to your search topic. You should consult a number of different databases and conduct manual searching of grey literature and trials registers in addition to databases searches. For example, a clinical psychology systematic review topic may search APA PyscInfo, Medline (PubMed), Web of Science and APA PsycExtra. Consult the A-Z databases list to find databases for your subject.

Formulating a search question

Formulating an answerable search question is essential to finding the best evidence for your topic. You can use the PICO framework to help you structure your search question and enable you to find the information you need most effectively.

PICO is a method of searching for evidence, commonly used within health and medicine. It helps to break down a clinical scenario and turn it into a clinical question. The formulating a search question guide provides an introduction to using PICO in practice.

The majority of research questions will have an identifiable population and intervention (or 'indicator'). These concepts will form the key parts of your search strategy. When using the framework, it's not necessary to use every category, the categories are simply there to guide you in forming a evidence-based question. Many clearly defined questions do not have a comparison or control to consider, so don't worry if this category isn't applicable for your topic.

Thinking about the Outcome you are interested in can help you focus your topic of interest. Systematic search strategies do not usually include search terms for outcomes, as these may affect the sensitivity of the search (i.e. you may miss relevant results).

Complete module three of Cochrane Interactive Learning 'searching for studies' to learn more.

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