Writing a Search Strategy

Writing a Search Strategy

It is recommended that you work with a librarian to help you design comprehensive search strategies across a variety of databases. Writing a successful search strategy takes an intimate knowledge of bibliographic databases.  

Using Boolean logic is an important component of writing a search strategy: 

  • "AND" narrows the search, e.g. children AND exercise
  • "OR" broadens the search, e.g. (children OR adolescents) AND (exercise OR diet) 
  • "NOT" excludes terms, e.g. exercise NOT diet 
  • "*" at the root of a word finds all forms of that word, e.g. (child* OR adolescen*) AND (exercise* OR diet*)
  • parentheses ensure all terms will be searched together as a set 
  • quotations around a phrase searches that exact phrase, e.g. (child* OR adolescen* OR "young adult*") 

3 Venn diagrams displaying the differences between the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT. Using AND narrows a search by requiring that both terms (puppy and kitten) be included in the results. Using OR broadens a search by requiring either term (puppy or kitten) be included in the results. Using NOT excludes just one term (kitten) so that included results only mention puppy and any results that mention kitten are excluded.

Evidence Synthesis Search Strategy Examples

Agriculture Example: 

Nutrition Example: 

Search Strategy Template and Filters

If you want to exclude animal studies from your search results, you may add a "human studies filter" to the end of your search strategy. This approach works best with databases that use Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) or other controlled vocabulary.

See Appendix 2 at the end of this published search strategy for an example of a human studies filter in a MEDLINE(Ovid) search strategy.

Line 13 searches for all animal studies, and then line 14 searches for only the full search results in line 12, NOT including any of the animal studies from line 13 (#12 NOT #13).


Add the following lines to the end of your search strategy to filter for randomized controlled trials. These are "validated search filters" meaning they have been tested for sensitivity and specificity, and the results of those tests have been published as a scientific article. The ISSG Search Filters Resource provides validated search filters for many other study design types. 

(randomized controlled trial [pt] OR controlled clinical trial [pt] OR randomized [tiab] OR placebo [tiab] OR drug therapy [sh] OR randomly [tiab] OR trial [tiab] OR groups [tiab])

  • Highly Sensitive MEDLINE (OVID) Filter from Cochrane 

((randomized controlled trial.pt. or controlled clinical trial.pt. or randomized.ab. or placebo.ab. or drug therapy.fs. or randomly.ab. or trial.ab. or groups.ab.) not (exp animals/ not humans.sh.))

  • CINAHL Filter from Cochrane 

TX allocat* random* OR (MH "Quantitative Studies") OR (MH "Placebos") OR TX placebo* OR TX random* allocat* OR (MH "Random Assignment") OR TX randomi* control* trial* OR TX ( (singl* n1 blind*) OR (singl* n1 mask*) ) OR TX ( (doubl* n1 blind*) OR (doubl* n1 mask*) ) OR TX ( (tripl* n1 blind*) OR (tripl* n1 mask*) ) OR TX ( (trebl* n1 blind*) OR (trebl* n1 mask*) ) OR TX clinic* n1 trial* OR PT Clinical trial OR (MH "Clinical Trials+")

  • PsycINFO Filter from ProQuest:

SU.EXACT("Treatment Effectiveness Evaluation") OR SU.EXACT.EXPLODE("Treatment Outcomes") OR SU.EXACT("Placebo") OR SU.EXACT("Followup Studies") OR placebo* OR random* OR "comparative stud*" OR  clinical NEAR/3 trial* OR research NEAR/3 design OR evaluat* NEAR/3 stud* OR prospectiv* NEAR/3 stud* OR (singl* OR doubl* OR trebl* OR tripl*) NEAR/3 (blind* OR mask*)

  • Web Of Science (WoS) Filter from University of Alberta - Not Validated

TS= clinical trial* OR TS=research design OR TS=comparative stud* OR TS=evaluation stud* OR TS=controlled trial* OR TS=follow-up stud* OR TS=prospective stud* OR TS=random* OR TS=placebo* OR TS=(single blind*) OR TS=(double blind*)

  • Scopus Filter from Children's Mercy Kansas City

 Copy/paste into 'advanced search':

TITLE-ABS-KEY((clinic* w/1 trial*) OR (randomi* w/1 control*) OR (randomi* w/2 trial*) OR (random* w/1 assign*) OR (random* w/1 allocat*) OR (control* w/1 clinic*) OR (control* w/1 trial) OR placebo* OR (Quantitat* w/1 Stud*) OR (control* w/1 stud*) OR (randomi* w/1 stud*) OR (singl* w/1 blind*) or (singl* w/1 mask*) OR (doubl* w/1 blind*) OR (doubl* w/1 mask*) OR (tripl* w/1 blind*) OR (tripl* w/1 mask*) OR (trebl* w/1 blind*) OR (trebl* w/1 mask*)) AND NOT (SRCTYPE(b) OR SRCTYPE(k) OR SRCTYPE(p) OR SRCTYPE(r) OR SRCTYPE(d) OR DOCTYPE(ab) OR DOCTYPE(bk) OR DOCTYPE(ch) OR DOCTYPE(bz) OR DOCTYPE(cr) OR DOCTYPE(ed) OR DOCTYPE(er) OR DOCTYPE(le) OR DOCTYPE(no) OR DOCTYPE(pr) OR DOCTYPE(rp) OR DOCTYPE(re) OR DOCTYPE(sh))

Sources and more information: