Which databases should I search?

You may already have been advised (by your marker if you are a student, or in guidance produced by a journal or systematic review body if you are a member of staff) which databases you are expected to search.

The precise selection of databases will depend on your topic but, in general, the following databases should form at least part of your search. Links are available on our database lists. If your topic spans or relates to more than one subject area search all the databases relevant to all those subjects.

How should I search?

1. Begin your search by breaking your topic down into keywords and phrases. Using our example question:

Does the therapeutic use of dolls reduce distress among adults with dementia residing in care homes?

a number of keywords and phrases are immediately obvious - dolls, distress, dementia, care homes.

2. Think of different ways of expressing these terms, synonyms, singulars, plurals, acronyms, different spellings, types of distress, dementia etc.   For example:

3. Next, consider how wildcards and phrase searching may help your search.

A wildcard (usually the symbol *) attached to the root of a word finds all forms of the word at the same time (ensuring you do not miss relevant articles by relying on only one form of a word). For example, Alzheimer* finds Alzheimers, Alzheimer's and Alzheimer at the same time, distress* finds distress, distressed, distressing at the same time. But use wildcards wisely; doll* will find dollar and dollars as well as dolls so it is better to use doll OR dolls to cover both.

Enter phrases in "" to  find the words together.  In most databases you can combine phrase searching with wildcards - so "nursing home*"  will find the phrase "nursing home" or the phrase "nursing homes" (and ignore articles where the words nursing and home or homes are used in different sentences in different contexts) .

4. Finally, combine the major elements of your topic (using AND) using all possible different ways of saying them (using OR between alternatives) to give a search like this:

As this particular research question crosses a variety of disciplines your search would include all databases relevant to those disciplines (social work, nursing, medicine, psychology - so SocINDEX with Full Text, CINAHL with Full Text, MEDLINE, Web of Science, PsycARTICLES).

Subject headings?

As you examine your results list, look at the subject index terms which have been added to relevant articles to describe their content; this may alert you to search terms you may have missed.  Subject terms usually appear under the brief descriptions of articles (and on the abstract/title and full displays). For example, some articles on CINAHL with Full Text are indexed under wandering as well as agitation so consider if you wish to add wander* to your search.

On some databases it can be useful to supplement keyword searching by browsing the lists of controlled subject headings, selecting relevant terms and and pulling them through into a search. For example, MEDLINE incorporates the MeSH headings (Medical Subject Headings controlled by the US National Library of Medicine). If you browse the MeSH headings for Dementia you will see all relevant medical diseases and have the opportunity to select and "explode" these terms to include all relevant sub-headings. 

Keep details of your search

Keep notes of the databases searched, terms used and numbers of results obtained as you will need to include this information in your written review.   You will also need to provide details of numbers of results if you are required to produce a (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) PRISMA flow diagram.

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(Moher et al. 2009)