The decisions and processes involved in a systematic search strategy: a hierarchical framework


  • Justin Michael Clark Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University, Robina, Queensland
  • Elaine Beller Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University, Robina, Queensland
  • Paul Glasziou Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University, Robina, Queensland
  • Sharon Sanders Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University, Robina, Queensland



Systematic Reviews, Systematic Searching, Evidence Identification, Evidence Synthesis


Objective: The decisions and processes that may compose a systematic search strategy have not been formally identified and categorized. This study aimed to (1) identify all decisions that could be made and processes that could be used in a systematic search strategy and (2) create a hierarchical framework of those decisions and processes.

Methods: The literature was searched for documents or guides on conducting a literature search for a systematic review or other evidence synthesis. The decisions or processes for locating studies were extracted from eligible documents and categorized into a structured hierarchical framework. Feedback from experts was sought to revise the framework. The framework was revised iteratively and tested using recently published literature on systematic searching.

Results: Guidance documents were identified from expert organizations and a search of the literature and Internet. Data were extracted from 74 eligible documents to form the initial framework. The framework was revised based on feedback from 9 search experts and further review and testing by the authors. The hierarchical framework consists of 119 decisions or processes sorted into 17 categories and arranged under 5 topics. These topics are “Skill of the searcher,” “Selecting information to identify,” “Searching the literature electronically,” “Other ways to identify studies,” and “Updating the systematic review.”

Conclusions:The work identifies and classifies the decisions and processes used in systematic searching. Future work can now focus on assessing and prioritizing research on the best methods for successfully identifying all eligible studies for a systematic review.



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Original Investigation