Systematic Review (Searching)
You have your assignment topic/research question and you need journal articles.
You know you need to search databases, but how and which ones?
This short guide will provide you with a methodology that you can apply to most databases
(and many search engines) you will encounter.
1. Find a database
Some databases have a very narrow focus, while others contain information on many topics.
Select a database that is appropriate for your topic/subject – see the subject guide page or browse the Library’s complete list of
2. Define your terms
Translate your enquiry or assignment topic into terms the database can understand.
Nouns or noun phrases are best.
Also think of synonyms or alternative terms you could use.
For example, if your assignment is on the relationship between diet and heart problems, you could use
the following search terms: diet, nutrition or food, and heart, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol or
3. Start searching
If you want an online database to understand you, you need to speak its language. That's why syntax* the way you put your search terms together - matters.
Since syntax can vary between databases, you should refer to the database's help or search tips page for
the full story.
David Macnaughton 2013
*Syntax tips
Case sensitivity: Most search engines are not case sensitive: they regard upper case, lower case, and mixed case
as identical. Some have the capability to match exact case.
Connectors (or 'boolean operators'): Connectors determine how multiple search terms are combined in a
search. Three common connectors are and, or and not. Sometimes symbols are used instead of words, i.e. + or .
And: find documents containing all of your search terms.
Or: find documents containing at least one of your search terms. You would use or to connect
synonyms or closely related terms.
Example: dogs and cats will find documents that contain both words.
Example: dogs or puppies will find documents that contain either word.
Not: exclude words from your results. Not should be used with caution as you could inadvertently
exclude relevant results.
Example: dogs not cats will only locate documents that include the word dogs, but only if the
document does not contain the word cats.
Nesting: The order in which search engines execute your commands is not always obvious. You can use round
brackets to control the search sequence.
Example: the search term diabetes and (nutrition or food or diet) will find documents that contain one
of the words in brackets - i.e. nutrition or food or diet - but only if they also contain the word 'diabetes'.
Proximity operators: locate terms that are close to one another. One such proximity operator is w/#, which you
can use to find two words that are # number of pages apart.
Example: diabetes w/3 nutrition will find documents where diabetes and nutrition occur within three
words of one another, in either order.
Phrase searching: Some databases will treat two or more words entered into the search box as a phrase, while
others require you to place a phrase in double quotation marks.
Example: "diet and diabetics" will only find documents where the whole phrase is present.
Truncation: Most databases allow end of word truncation, using one character, such as an asterisk, to replace
the remaining letters.
Example: diabet* will find documents containing diabetes, diabetic, and diabetics.
'Wild cards': Wild cards are characters, such as 'a question mark, used to replace replace a single letter in the
middle of a word. They are used to accommodate spelling variations.
Example: wom?n will find woman and women; organi?ation will retrieve organization and
Searching specific fields: Field searching allows you to designate where to search for a specific term.
Sometimes there is a drop-down menu to select the field, at other times a field 'qualifier' is added to the search
term, such as Smith:au or Smith in au.
David Macnaughton 2013