Simple steps for a systematic literature review (Part A: search terms and database search)


Thanks for the support, it shows that there are others out there going through the same journey too (hopefully we all get to celebrate success together too) 🙂

So these are the steps I followed to figure out my search terms and select databases to search for:

Search Terms

  1. Go to your university or institution library website
  2. Go to databases
  3. Search for Ebscohost or ProQuest
  4. Type in your main search terms or topic that you are researching.  A drop down list should appear with search term options (see below) if not, press space after your term and the drop down list should appear.


5. On the right, there is another field (on the left of the green search button).  You can select where you want to find your search terms.  I went for title and abstract .

6. Once you hit search, a list of results will come up.  There is usually a section on the page that shows your search terms (see yellow highlighted section below).


7. (Save your search terms) Select and copy this on something like “sticky notes” or “notepad” that you can have open on your screen and copy and paste into the other database search fields.

8. Depending on your topic, you know you’re on the right track when you have 200 or less results.  3 million results says your search term is too broad.

Mega Database Searches

You could follow my previous post and find relevant databases through the subject guide on your university / institute library website.


Fast track: Do what I call a mothership search.  These sites search multiple databases for you. (For more info:

Find these databases through your library website:

  • Ebscohost
  • ProQuest
  • Wiley online
  • Springerlink

You can even select which databases you want it to search (just make sure you copy the names of the databases that usually show up in the limits section on the left of your results screen.  You might need to state which databases you searched in your literature review especially if it’s a systematic.

Download each of your searches into your citation manager (e.g. Endnote etc) so you have a copy of the reference.  You can usually find some button that says SAVE or SEND up the top right in the results screen.  TIP: RIS = Endnote (why don’t they tell you these things….)

I create groups in Endnote with the name of the database and date searched and which search term group I used e.g. Proquest Search 1 dd mmm yy


If following the Joanna Briggs Institute guide for scoping reviews that I mentioned in my previous blog.  You will have 2 reviewers to screen (filter through the good and rubbish results you found).

This website makes it all the less painful, allows both of you to go through the same set of results together and even gets rid of the duplicates when you import into it. You import your references from your citation manager and off you go.

You may need to ask your university or institute if they have licenses for Covidence but it sure makes life easier.

Major tip from my supervisor (that no one tells you) is Do all your searches on the same day…as articles get published, your results will change with time. You need this if your review says that “as of the time that I write this, this was the literature on it and what it said”..


Hope that helps…

Don’t worry if you have to do your searches multiple times or change your search terms.  It happens to all of us.  Just make sure you allocate lots of extra time for this so it doesn’t stress you out.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s much less painful….trust me.

I say undergrad is theory only, master level is application but in a PhD you need to learn and apply your learning at the SAME time which is like learning how to walk and running at the same time which is why I guess PhDs are PhDs :).

So give yourself time to practice the theory and get good with Endnote, database search etc and soon we too will be able to do literature reviews in minutes…..and remember that you are human.

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