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Systematic Reviews

This guide will introduce you to the process of conducting a systematic review.

Search Strategy

The goal of systematic review searches is to identify all relevant studies on a topic. Therefore, systematic review searches are typically  quite extensive. It is necessary, however, to strike a balance between striving for comprehensiveness and maintaining relevance when developing a search strategy. Increasing the comprehensiveness (or sensitivity) of a search will reduce its precision and will retrieve more non-relevant articles.

For more information, check out IOM Standards for Systematic Reviews: Standard 3.1: Conduct a comprehensive systematic search for evidence

The goal of a systematic review search is to maximize recall and precision while keeping results manageable. Recall (sensitivity) is defined as the number of relevant reports identified divided by the total number of reports in existence. Precision (specificity) is defined as the number of relevant reports identified divided by the total number of reports identified.

Issues to consider when creating a systematic review search:

  • All concepts are included in the strategy
  • All appropriate subject headings are used
  • Appropriate use of explosion
  • Appropriate use of subheadings and floating subheadings
  • Use of natural language (text words) in addition to controlled vocabulary terms
  • Use of appropriate synonyms, acronyms, etc.
  • Truncation and spelling variation as appropriate
  • Appropriate use of limits such as language, years, etc.
  • Field searching, publication type, author, etc.
  • Boolean operators used appropriately
  • Line errors: when searches are combined using line numbers, be sure the numbers refer to the searches intended
  • Check indexing of relevant articles
  • Search strategy adapted as needed for multiple databases
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