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Systematic literature studies, Health & Sport

Library subject page. The University Library, Agder University

5. Wow - Evaluate the search strategy. Consider sensitivity (recall ) - specificity (precision)

  • Check word spelling
  • Boolean /Proximites operator used correct. Correct use of ()
  • If missing a known relevant articles, check if the journal is indexed in the database, if yes, check the words for the articles in the database and consider if you have to change the search strategy to retrieve the article by the strategy
  • Consider: Do you get to many irrelevant hits - or few relevant? Consider to change the search strategy, narrowing or broaden the search

Consider the Sensitivity(recall) - or Specificity (Precision)  of the search

  • Precision means finding the exact information needed with no false drops (irrelevant articles).  Terms such as focusing and narrowing, or specificity are associated with precision. (Norsk: Presisjon)
  • Recall means retrieving everything that is relevant to an information need.  Terms such as broadening and widening, or sensitivity are associated with recall (Norsk: Fullstendighet)


Increasing the comprehensiveness (or sensitivity) of a search will reduce its precision and will usually retrieve more non-relevant reports (Cochrane handbook, 4.4.3)


Definition from the Cochrane handbook, section 4-4-3

  • Sensitivity: fraction of relevant reports retrieved from all relevant reports
  • Specificity:  fraction of relevant reports retrieved from all reports retrieved


If the goal of your search is to retrieve "all" of the relevant studies /articles about your search question, you have to develop a broad search strategy, with possible more false drops, irrelevant articles. A broad search includes many ORs for each concept, and few AND (fewer concepts combined). Also, use words from text and subject headings (if subject headings exist for the concept).


Example broad or narrowing search strategy

  • Example broad search for the P concept young people (13-20): adolescen* OR youth* OR young* OR teenager*  and possible more OR's like girl OR boy OR ...
  •  A narrowing search with fewer or non OR's, like: adolescen*
  • A broad search also include fewer AND's, like  P words AND I words without any search for the Outcome words. P AND I  -
  • a more narrowing; P AND I AND O


Read more:

Check list search strategies

McGowan, J., Sampson, M., Salzwedel, D. M., Cogo, E., Foerster, V., & Lefebvre, C. (2016). PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies: 2015 Guideline Statement. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 75, 40-46. See Table 1