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Systematic Reviews & Library Assistance

Part 2: Preparing for the Search

A large portion of your systematic review will be spent in creating and gathering search terms (keywords and controlled vocabulary). This is a key part where librarian assistance can be extremely helpful.


Subject heading frequency analysis of gold standard articles

Term Harvesting

Create search string 1

Test search string 1 against gold standard articles, if GSAs are not found modify the search string

Translate search string to remaining databases

Step 7 & 8: Subject Heading Analysis & Term Harvesting

Use the Yale MeSH analyzer to gather the medical subject headings of your gold standard articles. Results can be exported and analyzed so that you can choose appropriate medical subject headings.

During term harvesting gather terms from:

  • Gold Standard Articles (especially from the title and abstracts)
  • Medical Dictionary
  • DynaMed Plus

Think about:

  • Alternate spellings
  • Acronyms
  • Phrases

These tools can help determine frequency of terms:


asymptomatic intracerebral hemorrhage
MESH PubMed ENTRY TERMS Emtree Embase synonyms Other
Cerebral Hemorrhage[Mesh] Cerebrum Hemorrhage* 'brain hemorrhage'/exp brain bleeding ICH Asymptomatic
Cerebral Parenchymal Hemorrhage* brain haemorrhage aICH Non symptomatic
Intracerebral Hemorrhage* brain hemorrhage nonsymptomatic
Cerebral Hemorrhage* brain microhaemorrhage symptomless
MESH Tree Cerebral Brain Hemorrhage* Emtree Tree brain microhemorrhage symptom-less
Basal Ganglia Hemorrhage brain ventricle hemorrhage cerebral haemorrhage
Putaminal Hemorrhage cerebellum hemorrhage cerebral hemorrhage
Cerebral Hemorrhage, Traumatic massive intracerebral hemorrhage cerebral microbleed
Cerebral Intraventricular Hemorrhage subarachnoid hemorrhage corpus callosum bleeding

Step 9 & 10: Create & Testing Search String #1

Once you have gathered the controlled vocabulary, keywords, synonyms, and phrases - it is time to begin combining the terms to create a search string for one database. Key components for this include: Boolean operators, truncation, proximity searching, and wildcards.

Boolean Operators
  1. AND - Narrows the search
    • Diabetes AND Nutrition
  2. OR - Broadens the search
    • Infants OR Newborns
  3. NOT - Narrows the search
    • Hearing loss NOT Hearing aids


  • Truncation is used to search for multiple endings of a word and is typically indicated with an asterisk.
  • For example: obes* will find obese and obesity


Proximity Searching
  • Proximity Searching is a way to search multiple terms that appear within a certain number of words from each other. There are typically two options to use -- Near or Next (sometimes also called Within). Order does not matter with Near, meaning ice NEAR/1 cream will find ice cream and cream ice. Order does matter with Next, meaning ice NEXT/1 cream will only find ice cream. Use the table below to see how popular databases require proximity operators to be listed. (Replace x with a number to represent the amount of words present between your terms)
Proximity Operators for Popular Databases
  Near Next (or Within)
Embase NEAR/x NEXT/x
EBSCO Databases (including CINAHL, Medline, PsycINFO) Nx Wx
Scopus W/x PRE/x
PubMed does not allow proximity searching does not allow proximity searching


  • There are a variety of wildcards that are available in different databases. They are similar to truncation but are used to stand for either a single letter or multiple letters within a word. They are indicated by a question mark or a hash mark (#) - check with the database you are using to determine which symbol is required.
  • For example spelling variations of hemorrhage can be found with:
    • Web of Science: h$emorrhage
    • Scopus: h*morrhage


Testing the Search

Once you have formatted your search string you need to test it to make sure that it finds your gold standard articles. If your search string does not find your GSAs you will need to make appropriate adjustments.

Step 11: Translating Search String to Other Databases

Unfortunately, there is not a magic search string format that will work in all databases. You will need to translate search string #1 that you have verified finds your gold standard articles. This includes potentially changing or removing:

  • Controlled vocabulary
  • Truncation & wildcard characters
  • Proximity operators

There are quite a few tools and guidelines that can help you with this step:

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