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Advanced literature search and systematic reviews

An introduction to systematic reviews

Develop your search strategy

Now that you have decided on your research question, you can develop your search strategy. Your search strategy is your plan on how you are going to perform a literature search to find studies for your review. Developing a strategy will save you time in the long run as it will help to ensure that you find studies relevant to your question and that you perform a 'systematic' search. 

Using a framework to structure your search

Your completed framework from Step 1 will help you identify and develop relevant search terms. Here is an example using the previous scenario: 

Example: Are mind body therapies a viable alternative to prescription drugs to control headaches in children?
Framework element Scenario breakdown Related search terms
Population Children
  • Infants 
  • Paediatric
Intervention  Mind body therapies
  • Mind body interventions
  • Mind body techniques
  • Mind body healing
  • Acupuncture
  • Alexander technique
  • Art therapy
  • Breathing exercises
  • Dance therapy
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music therapy
Comparison  Prescription drugs
  • Prescribed medication
  • Acetaminophen
  • Tylenol
  • Ibruprofen
  • Advil
  • Motrin
  • Triptans
  • Almotriptan
  • Eletriptan
Outcome Headaches
  • Migraine
  • Cephalgia
  • Cranialgia
  • SUNCT syndrome
  • HaNDL syndrome


Search terms

For each concept consider:

  • alternative spelling (i.e.: English vs. American English)
  • abbreviations or acronyms
  • synonyms and antonyms
  • plurals
  • scientific and common or layperson terminology

Tools that can help you identify search terms

Most databases will have thesauri or indexes which you can search. These will list subject headings under which studies available in the database have been categorised. For each subject term there will be a list of related terms (either broader or narrower) which studies can also be found under. Make a note of any of these terms which you feel are relevant to your question. You can then use these terms when you come to perform your literature search.

If you have found some useful articles from your scoping search, look to see what search terms they are using in their titles and abstracts. You can also browse their reference lists and look for terms which have been used in the titles of other studies. 

If you look for an article in the Scopus database and open the record, a list of keywords used by the author will be listed. 

If you enter a search term for one of your concepts in Google Scholar, some related search will be listed (these usually appear either in the middle or bottom of the page). These sometimes include related search terms that can be used for those concepts. 

Tools such as the British National Formulary can be particularly useful if you are searching for names of drugs or medications which can be used for a particular condition.  

For example, if one of the concepts of your research question related to treating headaches, your search terms would need to include the names of relevant drugs. 

Useful reference tools can be found in our Drug & Pharmacology guide.

Mind mapping can be a useful technique to help you generate further search terms and organise your ideas around your question. Some people find it more productive to mind map on paper, but there is mind mapping software available installed on all of City's student PCs. Search for MindGenius in the Windows search box. MindGenius is also available remotely via AppsAnywhere for Windows 10 users.