Video: Databases and search strategies (3:40 minutes)

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. You can see an example of how this was used in the MEDLINE(Ovid) search strategy of this published review (lines 13-14).

A simplified explanation of this filter can be seen below:

Example search using a human studies filter in Medline(Ovid) .
 Line Search Text Description
1 [Full search strategy here] This line represents your entire search strategy, which may be several lines long.
E.g., (children OR adolescents) AND (exercise NOT diet)
2 EXP animals/ NOT humans/ This line searches for all animal studies and removes any studies with humans.
3 1 NOT 2 This line filters your search results to only include human studies. It does this by removing all of the animal studies from your full search strategy results.

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 or controlled clinical or randomized.ab. or placebo.ab. or drug therapy.fs. or randomly.ab. or trial.ab. or groups.ab.) not (exp animals/ not‚Äč

  • 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

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:

Pre-generated queries in Scopus for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Pre-written SDG search strategies available in Scopus 

Scopus, a multidisciplinary research database, provides pre-written search strategies to capture articles on topics about each of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These search strategies were updated in 2023 and are no longer available directly on "Advanced Document Search". To use these SDG search strategies:

  • Go to the Elsevier 2023 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Mapping page.
  • Under Files, click on the SDG 2023 Queries folder.
  • Download the .txt file for each pre-written search strategy you are interested in. You will need to know the number of the SDG of interest (e.g., SDG01.txt is for SDG 1: No Poverty). This .txt file will contain the entire search string for the SDG, already written in Scopus syntax.
  • In Scopus, click on "Advanced Document Search".
  • Copy and paste the pre-written SDG search strategy into the search field.

More about the Sustainable Development Goals: 

"The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests."