The nightmare of the systematic search…

We introduce searching databases to our nursing students in year 1 of the programme.  I naively assumed that once they know what riches are contained in the thousands of journals the University subscribes to they would spend every spare moment searching and reading. Nope.  It seems that we teach this skill and the student promptly ignore it.  Perhaps this is because the library has a pretty good search engine itself that can retrieve relevant papers without the need to use database like Medline and Cinahl. The problem however it that this search facility is not as good as the specialist databases and therefore the students never discover how much further they could go with a well designed search.

Despite a number of efforts to teach the students the skills and the value of literature searching they arrive at the dissertation module at the beginning of year 3 virginal.  We have just spent a couple of weeks with them helping them remember and practice their search skills.  Many have found the process confusing and frustrating.  I found myself musing that my own skills have developed over many years but I am still learning new techniques and how to get the best out of each database.  So I don’t expect a novice to grasp it straight away but I think to myself that if he or she had started using the databases in year 1 by year 3 they would be pretty self-sufficient and find the search component of their dissertation easy.  A colleague hit the nail on the head I think when he said that he felt people only ever use a skill when they need to.  We have the same argument about teaching advanced clinical skills like phlebotomy and cannulation.  Should we teach this to student nurses who won’t get to practice those skills on placement and as a consequence will lose their competence?  If we don’t require the students to search – if they can get by without it – why should they use it?

There are some top tips that have begun to emerge as the students ask questions about searching.

  1. Search one database at a time and check the box that says ‘suggest search terms’.  This will allow the database to provide you with the term that best encapsulates what you want to find.
  2. Explode a search if you want the database to provide you with results that contain your major concept plus all the related concepts.  You can click on the hyperlink contained in the search term to show you what those other terms are.
  3. Select major concept if you only want results where your term is the main focus of the paper.  I don’t use this strategy very often because it creates a risk that you will miss some terms.
  4. Search for one term at a time.  If you use a search string (e.g. pain AND nurs* AND opioid) you won’t get MeSH terms or subject headings or suggestions.
  5. Think about what terms you don’t need to include in your search.  An excellent example of this occurred today in a search relating to the experiences of parents who were caring for a child at the end of life at home. Creating a search that included a number of terms for ‘child’ was not as good as leaving that term out.  Child is implicit when you search for parent and this seemed to yield a better set of data.
  6. Consider whether you want EVERYTHING that is published or a SAMPLE. In some qualitative review methods you don’t actually want everything, you just want a diverse sample of what is out there.  In the undergraduate review this is not a good strategy because you have to justify your rationale and this rationale is difficult to justify.
  7. Record everything as you go along.  This means saving your searches so that you can edit them and re-run them as often as you like.  Saving in OVID and EBSCO allows you to run searches on multiple databases without having to recreate them each time.
  8. Create your methods section as you undertake your searches.
  9. Use the inclusion and exclusion criteria to define your search and provide the scope for your question.
  10. Export the results of all searches, after applying the relevant limits, to a database like RefWorks or EndNote.  This will allow you to de-duplicate and work towards your final set of papers gradually and systematically.

5 thoughts on “The nightmare of the systematic search…

  1. You really make it seem really easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I feel I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely huge for me. I am looking ahead to your next publish, I will try to get the hold of it!


    • I think we need to be prepared to practice and read. The more you use the skills the easier they become – honestly! I struggle with getting the right words for certain searches even now – it is usually because I am not familiar enough with the topic area or what words researchers and writers use to talk about the topic. I usually find the more well read I am about something the easier the search process goes. So – read read read and practice.


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