Searching – does it ever end?

A number of my students are new to conducting a systematic search and they have found out that this is an iterative process, and one that seemingly has no end.  Here are some tips to help you deal with this frustrating but normal process.

  1. Accept that you will build the search gradually.  No-one gets it right first time.
  2. Learn from each search about additional terms that might improve the results.
  3. Think about whether you need to get rid of some of your terms – do they mean what you think they mean?
  4. Look at other reviews looking at similar issues to you – what terms have they used?
  5. Save each search you conduct so that you can edit and re-run them when you discover additional search terms.
  6. Be methodical
  7. Record the results of searches, the search terms you have used, and the reasons for decision as you go along.

What happens when you find a search term after you thought you had finished?  I have found search terms even during the writing up process.  After some thought I decided that the search wasn’t complete without the new term.  I conducted a search for that term in conjunction with the other key words.  I didn’t do the whole thing again, just focused on the new term and the words that would help me find any papers that were relevant.  I found a couple more papers and was able to plug them into my PRISMA diagram, appraise them, extract their data and adjust my finding.  It wasn’t a big deal because I accept that I won’t get it right first time.

The process does come to an end eventually but it is better to think about it as voyage than a task. This diagram of the process is available on canvas or by email from me (

Search strategy

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