Your Systematic Review Search Strategy


The search strategy can get one down when doing a systematic, scoping or any other type of review. This series of videos will help you organise your keywords and apply the essential principles to a search done in Medline via Pubmed. To explain the importance of keeping track of the number of studies you find, I also give you a glimpse into the PRISMA 2020 flow diagram.

Part 1 | How to plan and present your search terms

When you develop your systematic review protocol, you need to describe your search strategy in detail. The video below will show you what goes into the search strategy, and how to figure out where all those text words and subject terms fit in. The information in this video is relevant whether you are conducting a systematic review, scoping review or any other type of literature review. When you describe your search strategy in your protocol, it is important to be as detailed as possible. The JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis describes the ins and outs of a search strategy well (see link below). I show you how to organise your text words and subject terms into a table, in this video. Consult the help file of each database before you do your search seeing that each database works differently, and once you know how the database works, you can copy and paste your text words from the table. I use real-life search strategy examples and I’d like to thank the systematic reviewers who gave permission for us to use these.

JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis

Examples of the search strategy (see Appendix I) in published systematic review protocols in JBI Evidence Synthesis: 

Prevalence and incidence of injuries systematic review

Prevalence of concurrent headache systematic review

Example of the search strategies (see Appendix I) in a published scoping review in JBI Evidence Synthesis:

Digital technologies scoping review

Part 2 | How to build a search using the Pubmed Advanced Search Builder

This video will show you how I build a search using the PubMed Advanced Search Builder. You'll see that the video still shows the older version of the interface; however, the importance is on the principles of applying your search strategy to a database. In the video after this one, you'll see what the new interface looks like. In the video below, I’m searching for terms in text words as well as for MeSH Terms. Each of the databases works differently, so make sure you use the help files before tackling any database. The next two videos focus specifically on PubMed.

Part 3 | How to build a search using the NEW Pubmed Advanced Search Builder

The video below will show you how to use the new Pubmed Advanced Search Builder. Pubmed changed the interface of their advanced search builder in 2020. The Pubmed Advanced Search Builder works well, and I use this builder as a starting point to test out my search strategy when doing a systematic or scoping review. Play around to ensure that you know what terms you want to combine with your Boolean operators. Once you are happy with your Pubmed search strategy, you can apply the same principles in the other databases. Remember that each of the databases works differently, so check out the help files for each of them to ensure that you are not missing an important step. For example, some databases use the asterisk * as a wildcard or truncation function, while others do not. Some databases use subject terms such as what Pubmed refers to as MeSH terms, while others do not.

Part 4 | The PRISMA 2020 flow diagram: what’s it all about?

This video will show you what the new PRISMA 2020 flow diagram is all about. Becoming best friends with the PRISMA 2020 Statement is highly recommended if you do a systematic or scoping review. In this video, I’ll show you what the diagram requires, and I’ll show you a brilliant tool to use to complete it. Also, to make your life easier, I built a calculator in Microsoft Excel, which will make your job of completing the PRISMA 2020 flow diagram much easier. Here’s a link to the calculator. Also, tools like Covidence help streamline the import, screening and extraction process and automatically populate PRISMA for you, which saves you time and also helps reduce errors.

For a long time, we used the PRISMA 2009 statement and its diagram. Early in 2021, an updated version of the PRISMA statement was published. They also developed an online tool that can generate a PRISMA flow diagram for you. You can then export the PRISMA flow diagram in PDF or PNG and add it to your systematic/scoping review article, thesis, or dissertation. However, this tool does not have a PRISMA flow diagram calculator. Use the calculator accessible in the link above to double-check your own records. If your records are not the same as what is calculated here, then an investigation is required to see where there is a missing record or two.

So, if you are doing a systematic review, this video is for you. I love systematic reviews! Enjoy the journey..

You can download the Word versions of the PRISMA 2020 flow diagram and access the online flow diagram tool here.

Below are the references to the two valuable papers which contains much more information:

Page, M. J., McKenzie, J. E., Bossuyt, P. M., Boutron, I., Hoffmann, T. C., Mulrow, C. D., . . . Moher, D. (2021). The PRISMA 2020 statement: an updated guideline for reporting systematic reviews. BMJ, 372, n71. doi:10.1136/bmj.n71

Page, M. J., Moher, D., Bossuyt, P. M., Boutron, I., Hoffmann, T. C., Mulrow, C. D., . . . McKenzie, J. E. (2021). PRISMA 2020 explanation and elaboration: updated guidance and exemplars for reporting systematic reviews. BMJ, 372, n160. doi:10.1136/bmj.n160

Systematic and scoping reviews take time. Be kind to yourself and allocate enough time to get things done. And hang in there; the long journey will be worth it. Soon you'll reap the rewards. Keep pushing!

And have fun!


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Photo by Markus Winkler


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