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Systematic Reviews: Training - Non Health

Literature searching using Systematic Review methodology - Getting Started

For those carrying out Systematic Reviews in areas other than health

Examples of protocols


Nielsen, S.W. 2015 On political brands: a systematic review of the literature Journal of Political Marketing Vol. 16 No.2 pp.118-146 DOI:


Nabi, G, Liñán, F. Fayolle, A, Krueger, N & Walmsley, A 2017 The impact of entrepreneurship education in higher education: a systematic review and research agenda Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 16, No. 2 pp. 277–299.

Spolaôr, N., Benitti, F.B.V. 2017 Robotics applications grounded in learning theories on tertiary education: a systematic review vol.112 pp.97-107 DOI:


Althor, G. McKinnon, M. Cheng, SH. 2016 Does the social equitability of community and incentive based conservation interventions in non‑OECD countries, affect human well‑being? A systematic review protocol. Environmental Evidence Vol. 25 p.26 DOI:

Scoping searches are fairly brief searches of existing literature designed to help you gain an overview of the range and depth of research that exists for a particular research idea. It can cover published work and discover on-going studies. Research proposals are shaped by the results of a scoping search for your research idea. 

According to the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence "the expected output from a scoping exercise is an estimate of the quantity of evidence, and a characterisation of the likely evidence base, pertaining to the question." (chap 3 Guideline for Authors CEE, 2018)

A scoping search can also identify if someone else has already done a Systematic Review on your topic before.

Searching the literature using the Systematic Review methodology

Boolean operator

OR      combine synonyms together

cat OR mouse will retrieve all records that contain the word cat plus all the records that contain mouse

Using OR gets MORE

AND    combine different concepts together 

cat AND mouse will retrieve all records that contain both the word cat and the word mouse

NOT   eliminate a word from the results   **use carefully!**

cat NOT mouse will retrieve all records that contain cat, but not any records that also contain mouse

We recommend that you start with OR and build up your search for synonyms for each of your core topics - cat OR feline OR felis

Use AND to combine the results of the synonym searches

Please see Video or guide for more information.


Wildcards and Truncation

These are symbols such as * $ ? that are used to replace a single letter, a missing letter or a series of letters in a word.  When the symbol is placed in the word it is a wildcard and when it is at the end of the word it is a truncation mark.  Symbols vary according to the database you are using so it is important to check the Help section before you start.

A wildcard is useful to:

  • replace a letter that may be different - ​globali?ation will find globalisation OR globalization
  • a letter that can be missing - colo?r will find colour OR colour

Using a * will search for the main root of the word and any variable endings…

Assess* will find articles containing assess, assessing, assessed, assessment

So consumer* will find…

– consumer
– consumers
– consumerisation / consumerization

Search operators for different databases  - truncation, boolean, phrase searching  and proximity

You may find the video Truncation, Wildcard and Phrase searching helpful to view

When you enter two words next to each other in a search, most databases use implicit AND when carrying out a search.  This means that they will look for both words anywhere in the record.  If you want to only search for the words as a phrase then you need to use the right syntax to tell the database what you want.  Usually this is where you add quotation marks around the words.  For example, "marketing strategy" or "climate change".

In Scopus, double quotation marks are used to search for a loose / approximate phrase. To search for an exact phrase you should enclose the phrase in braces: {oyster toadfish}.

If you are searching for a phrase check the database Help to confirm what you should use.

Proximity or adjacency can be a very useful tool. It is a way to search for two or more words that occur within a certain number of words from each other. This can be very helpful when your topic can be described in different ways.  For example, 'climate change' could also appear in a paper as 'change in the climate'.  

In Web of Science Core Collection you use NEAR/where is the maximum number of words that separate the terms from each other so to search for 'climate change' or 'change in the climate':

climate NEAR/3 change

NEAR/x will find the words in any order

In Scopus or IBSS use W/n  in where n is the maximum number of words that separate the terms from each other.  If you want the words in a prescribed order you can use Pre/n.

Hand searching

Hand searching is an important element in a Systematic Reviews. It can involve scanning manually the table of contents and entire issues of key journals and conference proceedings in the subject area you are researching. There are some tools that can assist you with this.

Citation searching (aka snowballing or pearl growing)

Citation searching, sometimes also referred to as the snowball or pearl growing method, involves reviewing the list of references in a paper and searching for other more recent papers that have cited it since it has been published.

The following resources may be of assistance:

Zetoc is a searchable database of the British Library's electronic table of contents and as well citations and conference papers from PubMed. you can set up alerts to help you stay on top of your systematic review.

“Inclusion of grey literature into a systematic review is recommended in order to help minimize publication bias. The inclusion of grey literature in systematic reviews is widely recognized as important and international organizations have incorporated this information in their guidelines and manuals for working on reviews and meta-analyses.” (

A useful guide to grey literature Grey Literature

Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) Tools and Checklists

A set of eight critical appraisal tools designed to be used when reading research including one for use with Systematic Reviews.

Equally important - Don't forget

There is usually some time between conducting your initial searches and then writing up your results. It is useful to be alerted to any new material that is published that matches your search criteria during that time.  You can do this with the help of the databases, publisher platforms as well as specific journals by creating alerts. Generally you will have to create a personal account on the database or publisher platform to store your search history.

 Very good guide on creating alerts for your topic to help you stay up to date.

To help you balance precsion against recall, you can use a search filter/hedge to help you.

Please look at this guide to help you find any appropriate filters for study design, age groups, subjects etc. 

Please see this useful guide on various Screening tools you can use.

Engineering Village: expert features

The following playlist works through some expert searching techniques found on the Engineering Village platform. It is recommended that you view these in Panopto.

Important note: you need to be logged in to your University 365 account to view the videos.

Where to find Systematic Reviews

Joanna Briggs Institute. JBI publishes an Evidence based database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports

Campbell Collaboration. International Research Network that promotes positive social and economic change through the use of systematic reviews and evidence synthesis for evidence-based policy and practice 


The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre is a specialist centre for developing methods for:

  • for systematic reviewing and synthesis of research evidence; and
  • for the study of the use research. 

Recommended database

Databases are listed in alphabetical and not in priority order

Databases are listed in alphabetical and not in priority order

Databases are listed in alphabetical and not in priority order

Databases are listed in alphabetical and not in priority order

Databases are listed in alphabetical and not in priority order

Guide to using Databases on the Engineering Village platform

Writing a literature review in a systematic way as part of your PhD within ECS. Please see links to training that is available. Please scroll down to the bottom of the page.

This video introduces you to searching on the Engineering Village platform that hosts:

  • Compendex
  • GeoBase
  • Inspec

The databases cover topics of interest to those in engineering, computing, geography and environmental science. Use the table of contents to move to the relevant sections. It is recommended that you view this in full screen.

Important note: you need to be logged in to your University 365 account to view the videos.

The following provides a guide to Thesaurus searching on the Engineering Village platform. It is recommended that you view it in Panopto.

This video demonstrates the expert search option on Engineering Village. If you have watched the introductory or thesaurus searching video you can skip the 'Introduction'.