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Shimberg Health Sciences Library & Florida Blue Health Knowledge Exchange

Evidence Synthesis / Systematic Reviews

Identify databases (minimum 3) and search terms needed to find all relevant literature.  Consider meeting with a librarian. Conduct searches including unpublished/grey literature. Record numbers in PRISMA flow chart.

Identify databases and search terms

  • Identify databases to conduct your search

You should plan to search at least 3 databases. Most reviewers expect to see Medline (either via PubMed or Ovid) as one of the databases for health topics. Additional databases should be included based on your subject area. For a list of all available databases, consult the USF Health Libraries A to Z database list. 

  • Identify search terms to conduct your search

Searches for a systematic review need to be both comprehensive (prioritizing sensitivity over specificity) and reproducible. To make your search comprehensive, identify both key words and controlled vocabulary to describe the main concepts of your question.

  • Develop search strategies for each database

Combine terms using appropriate Boolean operators and subject headings (if applicable) for every database. Searches should be as similar as possible between the database.

Consider meeting with a librarian

No matter how experienced you are in searching PubMed and the medical literature, you will likely need help creating a search strategy that meets the guidelines for evidence synthesis in the health sciences. In fact, both the Cochrane Handbook and the Institute of Medicine recommend including a librarian trained in systematic review searching on your team.  

While this may not be possible, you may wish to consult with a librarian early in the process to ensure that you do not miss critical terms and databases in your search. Once you have developed your search strategy, you may also wish to request that a librarian conduct a peer review of your strategy. This will ensure that your review is in compliance with Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS) guidelines for systematic reviews.

Conduct searches

  • Run each search in the databases you selected, documenting your search strategy for each one. You should include these in your manuscript, typically as an appendix.
  • Consider searching additional literature sources to reduce the risk of publication bias in your review
    • clinical trial registries
    • conference proceedings and reports
    • white papers
    • theses and dissertations
  • For more information on grey literature, see the USF Health Libraries "Grey Literature" guide.

Record numbers in a PRISMA flowchart

The PRISMA diagram shows the flow of records through the phases of a systematic review. It maps the number of records identified, included and excluded, record sources, and the reasons for exclusions. Different templates are available depending on the type of review (new or updated) and sources used in the review.