A scoping search is an important first step in the searching process, and can be done once you have developed a well-defined and focused question, and considered your inclusion and exclusion criteria. Normally, you would have an idea of some original research on your topic. It's helpful to use these studies to see how they've been indexed within a database (see the section below on identifying relevant keywords and subject headings).
Allow adequate time for the scoping phase and try not to rush this process; remember the end point is to develop a reproducible and transparent search strategy to locate the available evidence for your question. Searching can be understood as an iterative process. You will need to develop a search and continually review and refine it for constant improvement.
A scoping search helps identify:
Make sure to keep track of how your search strategy evolves - documentation is key!
It is useful to build a 'gold set' of relevant references before you develop your search strategy. The papers in your 'gold set' can then be used to help you identify relevant search terms and to test that your search strategy will retrieve these items and other relevant references on your topic.
Sources for this 'gold set' may include:
A comprehensive search would usually entail a combination of subject headings, plus a wide range of keywords/phrases for each concept. Not all databases will have subject heading searching and for those that do, the subject heading categories may differ between databases. This is because databases classify articles using different criteria. Ensure that your keywords/phrases are necessarily robust.
Look for synonyms that may be listed in reference books or in other background reading material. .
Many systematic reviews are required to append a copy of their search strategies on publication. It can be helpful to look at the terminology that is used in reviews on related topics, even if not all concepts or elements of the paper are relevant.
You can manually ‘text mine' the papers in your gold set for useful search terms. Check if the author has provided a list of key terms that describe the content of the article, and look for relevant keywords or phrases that have been used in the title and abstract field. It is also helpful to search for the papers from your gold set in a key database such as Ovid Medline or Embase and then harvest the database reference for subject headings and useful keywords or phrases. Use a title search to locate the papers in the database Specialised software is available to help you in identifying keywords or subject headings. identifying subject headings. Key databases such as Medline allow you to do a subject heading search to locate relevant subject headings for your key concepts. It is important to remember that subject headings are often unique to a particular database, so you will need to look for appropriate subject headings in each database you intend to use.
Text mining tools you may want to try out are:
PubReMiner Enter a simple search string
Termine Upload a pdf or URL to mine text
MeSH on Demand Enter abstract or full text
You may create a concept map to list the subjects and key terms that you have identified. This list can be quite extensive and it can be helpful to use an Excel spreadsheet.
In people at risk of cardiometabolic disorders whose weight is classified as obese (P), how effectively does chocolate (I) reduce cholesterol level (O)?
SUBJECT HEADINGS (MedLine)
Boolean operators are used to combine the different concepts in your topic (or the elements in your PICO question).
The operators that are used to combine terms in a search strategy are AND, OR, NOT.
OR is used to combine synonyms.
In a systematic review, you will usually have a long list of terms that will describe a concept. Usually these terms are either synonyms or alternative descriptors for the same idea/concept.
Using OR will search for resources that discuss concept A or B..
AND is used to combine concepts.
Once you have created the lists of synonyms for a concept and grouped those terms into the one search statement, you can then use AND to combine Concept A with Concept B.
Using AND will search for resources that combine both concept A and B.
NOT is a subtraction operator.
You can use NOT to subtract a term or an idea or a topic that you do not wish to appear in your search results.
Use with caution as you may accidentally omit something that is still required.
Using NOT will search for resources that only discuss concept A.
Proximity operators are extremely useful when looking for combinations of keywords in a phrase.
Using ADJn retrieves words within ‘n’ words of each other, in any order.
For example: ADJ4 retrieves words within 4 words of each other in ANY order (up to 3 words in between).
Use DEFINED ADJACENCY for phrase searching fields such as the TITLE or ABSTRACT.
For example: (lung* ADJ2 injur*) retrieves: lung injury, lung injuries, injured lungs, injury to lungs.
Using N+ retrieves words within '+' words of each other, in any order.
For example: N4 retrieves words with 4 words of each other in ANY order.
Using W+ retrieves words within '+' words of each other, in the same order.
For example: W2 retrieves words within 2 words of each other in the SAME order.
Use proximity operators for phrase searching fields such as the TITLE or ABSTRACT.
For example: heart N2 disease* retrieves: heart diseases, diseased heart, diseases of the heart.
For example: coronary W1 disease* retrieves: coronary diseases, coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease.
NOT is a subtraction operator.
Using NEAR/number retrieves words within ‘number’ words of each other, in any order.
For example: NEAR/5 retrieves words within 5 words of each other in ANY order.
Use proximity operators for phrase searching fields such as the TITLE or ABSTRACT
For example: heart NEAR/2 disease* retrieves: heart diseases, diseased heart, diseases of the heart.
Using NEXT/number retrieves words when they appear next to each other in the order specified.
For example: lung NEXT injur* retrieves: lung injury BUT NOT injured lung
Truncation allows you to search for a word and all its variant endings. For example:
Infect* will retrieve:
Beware of truncating too soon!
Fall* will retrieve fall, falls, falling BUT it will also retrieve fallopian
Work out what is likely to be picked up in order to avoid irrelevant results.
Wildcards allow you to search for an undefined character within a word.
Isch?emia will retrieve:
The syntax (wildcards, proximity operators) may vary across database platforms. Use the database tips sheet below as a handy reference to ensure that you use the correct symbol/operator for the database that you are using.
The tutorial below demonstrates how to develop and perform systematic searches in Ovid Medline. The techniques demonstrated in the tutorial can be translated to other databases.
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