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Systematic Literature Searches

Systematic Literature Searches

Systematic literature searching requires that you to organise and perform the search process in a structured and pre-planned way. It necessitates careful consideration of your search terms, selection of resources (including databases), choice of search methods, and requires you to reflect on the search results obtained during the process.  

When you search the literature in a systematic way you have a greater chance of avoiding disparities and selection bias, and it enables you to identify gaps in the existing research. In this way you also minimise the risk of reproducing already existing research.  

Documenting your searches during the process is key. Your aim is that your searches are, in principle, reproducible.  

Some disciplines such as medicine have a strong history of producing systematic reviews. Systematic reviews are a formalised method of research output that aims to identify, select, critically appraise and synthesise all relevant research that answers a specific research question. 

To search in a systematic fashion, it is not necessary is not always necessary to be so rigorous as a formalised systematic review. You can follow and adapt the basic principles for the construction of structured and systematic searches and documentation of results. 

In a nutshell

  • Pre-planned

  • Structured

  • Multiple resources searched

  • Documented

  • Theoretically reproduceable

Breaking down your search into concepts

What is your research question? 

Before you start it is crucial you define what you are looking for and for this you need a research question. Once you have clarified your research question you can construct your search to answer it.  

Next you need to break your question down into its main concepts. There are many ways that you can identify what your concepts are in your question. Below are some mnemonic devices that can be used to identify your main concepts. 

Finding the best search terms-Brainstorming time

Your search terms are crucial for determining what you find. So it is worth spending some time working on them. It is up to you to find the best and most relevant keywords to cover the different aspects of the topic you are working with in your research.

List each of the concepts you identified in your research question. Now think of any other ways this concept could be expressed and list them below. This type of table is called a Logic Grid, it is an easy way of organising your search terms.

It's all about being creative and considering all possible synonyms, close synonyms, related terms, narrower/broader terms, antonyms, abbreviations, grammatical or linguistic variations of your keywords.

You can refer to reference works, do a quick search on Google Scholar or a main database on your topic, or talk to your colleagues.

Remember, you will likely add to this list as you start searching.

Example question​

What are the barriers in implementing food policies in schools?

Within some fields of study terminologies can be inconsistent, and perhaps also changeable over time, so here you must be extra careful to build up a good pool of keywords which can be combined in different ways. This also applies to interdisciplinary topics and new areas of research that have not yet received a fixed terminology.  

If your subject area has a relatively fixed and established terminology, it can often be helpful to check the thesauruses of the databases you are searching in, so you can verify that you are using the agreed form of your keywords.    

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Systematic review searching