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Systematic literature studies, Health & Sport

Library subject page. The University Library, Agder University

Systematic approach to literature search. Concept building block search

"...a systematic approach to literature retrieval.. is both methodical and reasoned. As with other research procedures, literature searches should be documented and verifiable. There are no set ways of going about this, so documentary procedure is germane" (Haraldstad & Christophersen, 2007, s. 127 in Laake, Benestead & Olsen (red) Research methodology in the Medical and Biological Sciences)

"The so-called building-block strategy is commonly used when formulating a search strategy. Each part of the PICO that has been selected for use in the search strategy usually corresponds to a block of search terms and search phrases. In Assessment of methods in health care A handbook, Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services (SBU), Sweden, 2018, p. 26

Building block search strategy

  1. What- is your question? Identify the main search concept or elements from your question. Start with the most important element (concept), choose more if needed. (Tool: PICO or similar framework (PIO, PEO, PICo, PCC... can be useful, but not needed)
  2. Were - to search. Choose databases
  3. Words - Find search words for your concepts.  Subject headings words (words from the database),  and words from title and abstract (text words). 
  4. Work - Do the search - using the search techniques to combine the words within the same search block, and to combine the search blocks, using the Boolean and/or, proximity operator,  truncation and wildcards, and specify the fields for the words in the search
  5. Wow - Evaluate.
    • Check spelling and use of Booelan operator.
    • To many irrelvant hits?
    • Missing relevant hits?  
    • Balance the recall (sensitivity) and precision (specificity) - Narrow (smalt) search or broad (bredt) search
  6. Document the search history: Print out from the database. Export to EndNote or similar reference management systems and de-duplicate
Example of a search strategy (Norwegian demo of the search in CINAHL (EBSCOhost below)

The last search result will include words from all the concepts, elements from my search question that has been chosen for the search:




Elements from my search question


Search words (a block of words representing the concept, element
from my question)

How and at what frequency should repositioning (I) be
undertaken for the prevention of pressure ulcers (O)  immobile bedridden elders (P)
  Population- or sample, or problem aged OR elder*
1 Intervention- or issue or phenomenon of interest, or exposition or risk, or instrument repositioning* OR turn OR turning OR position*
2 Comparison- or Context  
3 outcomes - or evaluations pressure NEARBY (ulcer* OR sore* OR injur*)
5 possible S study designs/research methods  
6 possible T time or Type of study  

Follow up  search strategies

Strategies used in the initial phases before undertaking a systematic search, and as a follow up search strategy

Similar articles - based on words from title, abstract from relevant articles. Often used in the initial phase of the search for finding more relevant articles and words

Cited reference/Forward citations -  articles that cite the included relevant studies. Used often both in the initial phase, and to follow up already included studies

Reference list checking /backward citation  - from the relevant articles, check the reference list. Used often both in the initial phase, and to follow up already included studies


Reporting citation/reference searching

Hirt, J., Nordhausen, T., Fuerst, T., Ewald, H. & Appenzeller-Herzog, C. (2024). Guidance on terminology, application, and reporting of citation searching: the TARCiS statement. BMJ, 385, e078384. 

Read more: 

SBUs metodbok, kap 4 . Litteratursökning. / English edition: Assessment of methods in health care and social service, 4 Literature search

Aromataris, E., & Riitano, D. (2014). Constructing a search strategy and searching for evidence. A guide to the literature search for a systematic review. Amerian Journal of Nursing, 114(5), 49-56.

Bramer, W. M., de Jonge, G. B., Rethlefsen, M. L., Mast, F., & Kleijnen, J. (2018). A systematic approach to searching: an efficient and complete method to develop literature searches. Journal of the Medical Library Association: JMLA, 106(4), 531–541.

Lefebvre, C., Glanville, J., Briscoe, S., Featherstone, R., Littlewood, A., Marshall, C., Metzendorf, M.-I., Noel-Storr, A., Paynter, R., Rader, T., Thomas, J. & Wieland, L. S. (2022). Chapter 4: Searching for and selecting studies. I J. P. T. Higgins, J. Thomas, J. Chandler, M. Cumpston, T. Li, M. J. Page & V. A. Welch (Red.), Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.3 (updated February 2022). Link

Folkehelseinstituttet. Slik oppsummer vi forskning. Metodeboka [nettpublikasjon].

Systematisk søkteknik  (KIB) / English edition: Systematic search techniques (KIB)

PhD on track Systematic review searching

Tutorials Systematic search fra Yale university

Norsk video: Eksempel på et strukturert, systematisk, søk i CINAHL (EBSCOhost):