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Health Sciences - Systematic Reviews & Meta-Analyses: Step 4: Perform your search

LibGuide on Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

What is a journal article?

Journal articles are written by researchers or scholars who work in a professional or in an academic field.

An editorial board evaluates articles submitted. Subject specialists decide whether or not the article adds valuable, important or new information to the subject and whether or not the researchs has been conducted correctly, academically and in an ethical or moral way. Articles thus reviewed or examined are called ‘peer reviewed’.

Journal articles quote sources to substantiate information or statements and also to have an academic reading list of sources consulted for writing the article.


Systematic reviews and meta-analyses: a step-by-step guide

Step 4

Perform your search (locate and select studies)

This can be complex, and requires searching in different databases (which each require different search strategies) as well as locating non-published studies e.g. by contacting experts in the field, or hand-searching conference proceedings (see presentation on Developing a Search Strategy for Systematic Reviews by Cochrane South Africa).  Seek advice directly from your librarian (contact Dorcas Rathaba or Mlungisi Dlamini). If you are doing a Cochrane review you should follow their specific guidance.

You will also need to become familiar with reference management software (e.g. Refworks, EndNote, Mendeley [Wikipedia compares many of the available products here]) to allow you to manage your searches, and also to make writing the final paper easier.

By screening the title and/or abstract you will be able to reject many of the papers you identified as not fulfilling your inclusion criteria. You should then generate a ‘long-list’ of all the papers you need to read in more detail (err on the side of over-inclusion). Retrieve these from the library from e-journals, by copying the paper original, or request an inter-library loan. Keep a record of why you reject each one (to allow you to fill in the PRISMA flowchart, see later). Ideally, this should be done by two researchers independently (it is very easy to miss one or two articles when screening large numbers), and disputes settled between you, or with discussion with a third person.

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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