Knowledge syntheses involve systematically searching the literature. For example,
Systematic reviews of interventions require a thorough, objective and reproducible search of a range of sources to identify as many relevant studies as possible (within resource limits). This is a major factor in distinguishing systematic reviews from traditional narrative reviews (...)
Lefebvre C, Glanville J, Briscoe S, Littlewood A, Marshall C, Metzendorf M-I, Noel-Storr A, Rader T, Shokraneh F, Thomas J, Wieland LS. Chapter 4: Searching for and selecting studies. In: Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.1 (updated September 2020). Cochrane, 2020. Available from https://training.cochrane.org/handbook/current/chapter-04#section-4-2-2
Systematic searching is:
MEDLINE is often considered a primary database for biomedical searches. It is available through various platforms including PubMed but at McGill we recommend searching MEDLINE on the Ovid platform.
Need help searching MEDLINE on Ovid?
Start with this introduction to searching with subject headings and keywords.
More information on the importance of the research question and the basics of searching can be found in the guide called Health Sciences Literature Searching Basics.
Need help choosing which databases to search for a health sciences review?
This table lists some of the differences between the core databases used in health sciences.
|Database (Platform)||Subject coverage||Publication types included||Dates covered|
|MEDLINE (Ovid) / PubMed||Primary biomedical database for health care research; we recommend searching MEDLINE on the Ovid platform (enhanced options for searching) or via PubMed (free platform)||Journal articles, editorials||1946 to present|
|CINAHL (EBSCOhost)||Extensive coverage of nursing and allied health, including nursing and rehabilitation journals not covered by MEDLINE||Journal articles, editorials, trade magazines||1937 to present|
|CENTRAL (Cochrane Library)||CENTRAL is a sub-database (identified as Trials) in the Cochrane Library and contains records of randomized and quasi-randomized studies. The majority of the records come from MEDLINE and Embase but records from CINAHL and KoreaMed are also included, along with trial records from ClinicalTrials.gov, ICTRP, and additional records from handsearching and those flagged in the Cochrane Review Groups' Specialized Registers.||Journal articles, records from clinical trial registries||Earliest available to present|
|Embase Classic + Embase (Ovid)||European coverage in biomedicine, rehabilitation, pharmacology||Journal articles, editorials, conferences||1947 to present|
|Global Index Medicus (WHO)||Allows you to cross-search regional databases covering low and middle income countries||Journal articles||Earliest available to present|
|PsycINFO (Ovid)||Excellent resource for research on psychological, social, behavioural, and mental health questions||Journal articles, books, book chapters, & dissertations||1806 to present|
|Scopus||Multidisciplinary citation database; "largest database" of peer-reviewed article records covering the arts, medicine, science, social sciences, and technology||Journal articles, books, conference proceedings||
1788 to present
Cited references: 1970 to present
|Web of Science Core Collection||Multidisciplinary citation database; McGill coverage includes the Science Citation Index Expanded 1900- (SCI-EXPANDED), Social Sciences Citation Index 1956- (SSCI), Arts & Humanities Citation Index 1975- (A&HCI), Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Science 1900- (CPCI-S), Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Social Science & Humanities 1900- (CPCI-SSH), and the Emerging Sources Citation Index 2015- (ESCI)||Journal articles, conference proceedings||1900 to present|
If your question spans multiple disciplines and you would like more information on databases outside of this list, we suggest
The Cochrane group also has a living list of resources you can consult.
It is recommended that you have your search strategy peer reviewed. Not all librarians will agree to peer review a non-librarian search, however. For peer review criteria and critical appraisal of search strategies, consult:
PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies: 2015 Guideline Explanation and Elaboration (PRESS E&E) (see Table 9 for the updated checklist)
PRESS Guideline — Search Submission & Peer Review Assessment: Microsoft Word format (Appendix A in Guideline Statement)
We recommend developing the search strategy in a primary database before translating the search strategy to the other selected databases: This will make it easier to keep track of things. If you subsequently find terms in the other selected databases, you can then go back and add them to the search(es) that has (have) already been developed as well as integrate them into the remaining searches.
You can use a tool called SRA Polyglot to help with the search translation from MEDLINE on Ovid or from PubMed to a number of databases, such as CENTRAL (Cochrane Library/Wiley), CINAHL (EBSCO), Embase (Ovid), Scopus, and Web of Science Core Collection. It does not correct the subject headings, however, and you will need to do that manually (identifying the applicable subject headings in CINAHL and Embase, for example, then updating the searches accordingly, and removing them from databases in which they may have become redundant or nonsensical, e.g., when words are inverted). We also caution that using it properly requires more advanced database searching skills.
The University of South Australia has some handy PDF guides on search translation:
Run your search on other databases - instructions for translating a search to Scopus, Web of Science, CINAHL, SPORTDiscus (EBSCOhost), Cochrane Library, ERIC (ProQuest), and ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global
We also recommend running all the searches on the same day to make it easier to document the date in your manuscript.
Once you have your searches developed and you are ready to run them, you can then export the records from each database to an EndNote library or export the records as .ris files. These can be imported into citation software or into knowledge synthesis software such as Covidence.
Booth A, Briscoe S, Wright JM. The “realist search”: A systematic scoping review of current practice and reporting. Research Synthesis Methods. 2020;11(1):14-35. doi: 10.1002/jrsm.1386
Bramer WM, de Jonge GB, Rethlefsen ML, Mast F, Kleijnen J. A systematic approach to searching: An efficient and complete method to develop literature searches. J Med Libr Assoc. 2018;106(4):531-41. doi: 10.5195/jmla.2018.283 (Open access)
Bramer WM, Rethlefsen ML, Kleijnen J, Franco OH. Optimal database combinations for literature searches in systematic reviews: A prospective exploratory study. Syst Rev. 2017;6(1):245. doi: 10.1186/s13643-017-0644-y
Cooper C, Booth A, Varley-Campbell J, Britten N, Garside R. Defining the process to literature searching in systematic reviews: A literature review of guidance and supporting studies. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2018;18(1):85. doi: 10.1186/s12874-018-0545-3 (Open access)
Lefebvre C, Glanville J, Briscoe S, Littlewood A, Marshall C, Metzendorf M-I, et al. Technical supplement to chapter 4: Searching for and selecting studies. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions version 6.1: Cochrane; 2020.
Morris M, Boruff JT, Gore GC. Scoping reviews: Establishing the role of the librarian. J Med Libr Assoc. 2016;104(4):346-53. doi: 10.5195/jmla.2016.156 (Open access)
Due to a large influx of requests, there may be an extended wait time for librarian support on knowledge syntheses.
Find a librarian in your subject area to help you with your knowledge synthesis project.