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Systematic Review Process: best practices

Translating Search Strategies Background

Evidence synthesis methods require authors to search multiple databases, and not all databases accept the same search "syntax." Each individual database requires use of specialized search syntax, and therefore evidence synthesis search strategies must be 'translated' between databases. 

For example, a search for lung cancer[Title/Abstract] in PubMed will show you all citations with the phrase "lung cancer" in the title, abstract, or keywords, but a search for lung cancer[Title/Abstract] in Scopus will not work at all. 


It is very important to keep an accurate record of your searches so that they can be included in your report, enabling someone to reproduce them if necessary.

  • Keep a record of the date you searched, the name of the database, and the platform.
  • Register with the databases so that you can access your search strategy, combine searches, and save them.
  • Build up each search in steps, recording the number of results found at each stage.
  • Where possible set up alerts using your search strategy so that you are notified of any new papers relevant to your review.

Below is a template that you can use to document your search strategy translations and results, as well as search syntax translation tools and examples. Contact a librarian for assistance with search syntax translation. 

Search Syntax Translation Examples

  • Click Advanced to navigate to the Advanced Search page, and use the Builder to select a search field from the All Fields menu.

  • From the "All Fields" drop-down menu, select the field you would like to search.

  • Add terms from the builder to the query box to construct your search. The default Boolean operator is AND; if desired, choose OR or NOT from the pull-down menu.

  • Add MESH-appropriate terms to your search. The Medical Subject Headings [MeSH] tag searches for articles tagged with that MeSH term. See a tutorial on MeSH terms to learn more. 

  • Once you have finished adding terms to the query box, click Search (or Add to History) to run the search.

  • To search for all terms that begin with a word, enter the word followed by an asterisk (*): the wildcard character. 

  • To search for a phrase including a truncated term, use the following formats:

  1. Enclose the phrase in double quotes: "breast feed*"

  2. Use a search tag: breast feed*[tiab]

  3. Use a hyphen: breast-feed* 

  • [TIAB] tag searches for terms in the title, collection title, abstract, other abstract, or keywords

  • There is no wildcard searching (none or more unknown characters) in PubMed

A comprehensive search for influenza vaccines in PubMed could be:

#1 - "Influenza Vaccines"[Mesh]

#2 - "Flu Vaccin*" [TIAB] OR "Influenza Virus Vaccin*" [TIAB]

#3 - #1 OR #2

Analyze Your PubMed Results

After identifying several useful articles, use their PMID numbers in the Yale Mesh Analyzer to help flesh out your search & keyword terms.

  • You can search the Cochrane Library using MeSH terms

    • To add MeSH terms to your search, search for the term in the Medical Terms (MeSH) tab, select the correct one, and click "Add to search manager"

    • Selecting "Single MeSH term (unexploded) before adding it to your search manager means the MeSH term is not "exploded" aka it does not include or search narrower terms

  • :ti,ab,kw tag searches for terms in the title, abstract, and key words. These search strings can be entered directly into the search manager

  • Quotation marks should be used to search exact phrases

    • ​No truncation or wildcards are accepted inside quotation marks

      • ​Use NEXT operator

  • Truncation is denoted by * and searches for all forms of a particular word

  • Wildcards (none or one unknown character) are denoted by ?

    • Doesn't work when used in conjunction with truncation

  • Click on the "? Search Help" button to learn more about Cochrane Library searching and syntax

A comprehensive search for influenza vaccines in Cochrane Library could be:

#1 - MeSH descriptor: [Influenza Vaccines] explode all trees

#2 - ("Flu Vaccine" OR "Influenza Virus Vaccine"):ti,ab,kw

#3 - #1 OR #2

  • Use “CINAHL Headings” represented by MH

  • The + means the term is “exploded” aka includes and searches all narrower terms

  • TX searches for terms in the full text and citation record

  • Quotation marks should be used to search exact phrases

  • Truncation (all endings of a particular word) and wildcards (none or more unknown characters) are denoted by *

    • Accepted inside quotation marks

A comprehensive search for influenza vaccines in CINAHL could be: 

#1 - MH("influenza vaccine" or "influenza vaccination" or "flu vaccine" OR "flu shot")

#2 - TX("influenza vaccine" OR "flu vaccine" OR "influenza vaccination" OR "flu shot")

#3 - #1 OR #2

  • Navigate to the "Advanced Search" tab for line by line searching

  • There is no controlled vocabulary headings for searching the Web of Science Core Collection. Search for keywords in the title/abstract/keywords of articles only. 

  • TS= searches for terms in the title, abstract, author keywords

  • Quotation marks should be used to search exact phrases 

  • Truncation is denoted by * and searches for all endings of a particular word

  • $ in the middle of a word will find multiple spellings of that word

A comprehensive search for influenza vaccines in Web of Science could be:

#1 - TS=("influenza vaccines" OR "flu vaccines" OR "influenza vaccination OR "flu vaccination") 

  • Click on "Advanced" below the search bar for line by line searching

  • There are no headings in Scopus

  • TITLE-ABS-KEY searches for terms in the title, abstract, and keywords

  • Curly brackets should be used to search exact phrases or if you would not like inflected forms of a word searched

  • Quotation marks should be used to search for when variations of two or more words appear together in the title, abstract, or keywords 

  • Truncation (all endings of a particular word) and wildcards (none or more unknown characters) are denoted by *

  • Truncation (*) is okay inside quotation marks, but not curly brackets

A comprehensive search for influenza vaccines in Scopus could be:

#1 - TITLE-ABS-KEY("İnfluenza vaccines" OR "flu vaccines" OR "influenza vaccination OR "flu vaccination")