Starting your review

Starting your systematic review

If you are carrying out the review as a member of a wider team, you should consult the other members of your team regularly. Different people may use the terminology in different ways depending on their geographical location or profession. This may prevent misunderstandings and make for a happier project! The same applies to researchers carrying out a new review, regular contact with your supervisor is worthwhile, you may benefit from their professional expertise. Here are some other general pointers:

  • Limits: Once the topic has been clearly defined, you should consider whether you want to limit the search by language or date of publication. This may be helpful when your topic is fairly new, but applying limits can miss out definitive older articles. Always discuss with your team or supervisor!
  • Defining your search terms: The best way to do this is to run a couple of wide searches on the most commonly used databases in your subject, for example CINAHL and Medline. Find some relevant articles and read through them highlighting key words or phrases. You can then use these as the basis for your search strategy. Make a list of the core terms and any synonyms and spelling variations. At this stage you can discuss these terms with your project team or supervisor.
  • Thesaurus terms: The most precise way to search any database is to use the words included in the thesaurus for the individual database. As new articles are added to a database, they are indexed using a list of approved keywords or thesaurus. This is why advanced researchers always search one database at a time - remember that thesauri vary from database to database. Even natural language words can vary in the way they are used! Using this type of search usually produces very focused results.
  • Natural language searching: Sometimes you may need to use alternative keywords when searching. The research protocol may require you to widen out your search to ensure that you don't miss out any research. You will also find that many grey literature sources and search engines do not use thesauri, so you may have to use a combination of terms.

This page was produced in collaboration with Dr Helen Marlborough of Glasgow University Library.