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Systematic reviews and Meta-analysis in Business/Management

This guide is available for researchers and students undertaking systematic reviews or meta-analysis on Management or Business-related topics. It highlights best practices to improve reproducibility.

Searchable concepts and seed article set

A searchable concept is one that is feasible/easy to search; these are concepts that are mentioned in the title/abstract/keyword fields or other readily searchable metadata fields in a database. 

They are often derived from elements of your PICO (or whichever question framework you used)

Not all PICO elements are (or should be) searchable concepts. 

Example question: Does gamification of training programs (I) lead to higher completion rates of mandatory compliance training (O) than non-gamified approaches (C) in banking and insurance industry employees (P)? 

Searchable concepts: 1) Gamification, 2) Training, 3) Employee (or Banking/Insurance)


General guidelines:

  • 2-3 searchable concepts is typical for most reviews.
  • Outcomes are not searched unless necessary (less than 2 searchable concepts available or the outcome is very specific)

A set of known articles (3-5) found by searching a database or Google Scholar, can be used to:

  • Manually mine for keyword terms
  • Find subject headings
  • Identify searchable concepts
  • Test your database search strategies to see if all seed articles are brought back by your search

A seed article set should be:

  • Representative (meet the eligibility criteria)
  • Diverse (publication dates, study designs, publication location, disciplines, as relevant).

Designing a comprehensive search

Designing a comprehensive search in a database requires leveraging the functionality of the database to build a search that is comprehensive and strikes a balance between sensitivity and specificity, in order to capture all relevant articles. It is recommended that you work with an information professional/librarian to design your search.

A comprehensive search typically includes the following elements:

  • Subject headings/ controlled vocabulary terms (where available)
    • These need to be looked up in each database's thesaurus (or subject heading directory)
  • A comprehensive list of keywords (including synonyms and spelling variations)
    • These can be gathered from: manually mining known articles or review papers, database thesaurus entries, content expert knowledge, etc.
  • Boolean operators (AND, OR) 
  • Database operators such as truncation, wildcard, proximity operators
  • Specified fields to search in (typically: title, abstract, author-supplied keywords)
  • Structured in concept blocks over multiple search lines.

Keep in mind that creating a search is an iterative process; the search is tested and continually refined until it has attained a reasonable balance between sensitivity and specificity, and captures your seed article set when tested.

Results from the database search should not be downloaded until the refinement process is done, and all other database searches have been developed. 

Note: In order to meet the requirement for transparency and reproducibility, a complete line-by-line search should be reported in your published article (in the supplemental information/appendices if necessary).

  • Barbara Livoreil, Julie Glanville, Neal R. Haddaway, Helen Bayliss, Alison Bethel, Frédérique Flamerie de Lachapelle, . . . Geoff Frampton. (2017). Systematic searching for environmental evidence using multiple tools and sources. Environmental Evidence,6(1), 1-14.
  • Cooper, C., Booth, A., Varley-Campbell, J., Britten, N., & Garside, R. (2018). Defining the process to literature searching in systematic reviews: a literature review of guidance and supporting studies. BMC medical research methodology, 18(1), 85.
  • Kugley, S., Wade, A., Thomas, J., Mahood, Q., Jørgensen, A. M. K., Hammerstrøm, K., & Sathe, N. (2016). Searching for studies: A guide to information retrieval for Campbell. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 13(1).

Database syntax guide & tracking your numbers

Translating your search to other databases

Conceptually, translating a search means re-writing the search strategy into a language that can be understood by the next database being searched. However, having a comprehensive search in one database to use as a starting point makes it much easier, than creating a first search from scratch.

Search element Changes needed How to 
Textwords/keywords No. Textwords/keywords are typically searched in the title/abstract fields and these remain the same regardless of which database the record is found within, so they remain the same. It is recommended that the textwords searched in each database remain consistent (as much as possible).
Subject Headings Yes. Subject headings are database-specific, so the relevant subject headings from each new database being searched need to be found.
Database operators (truncation, proximity, quotation marks, etc) Yes. Sometimes platforms may use similar operators. For example Medline and Embase are two different databases, but both are on the OVID platform and both use the same proximity operator (adj#). However, different platforms will often use different operators. It is best to check/confirm the relevant operators in the database help guide or a library-provided database syntax cheat sheet when translating your searches to ensure you are using the appropriate syntax.
Boolean operators No. AND and OR are universal and do not change as you move from one database to another. 
Search fields Yes. Different databases have different searchable fields, and the ways in which you designate the search field may also differ. For example, in an EBSCO database, you have to select the field from a drop-down menu, but in an OVID database, you have to type in the field code as part of your search line. Even on the same platform, different database may not have the same selection of fields. Search fields need to be verified and selected (or typed in) as needed for each new database search.
Combining search lines Not really While the way in which you combine search lines looks different in different platforms, the combinations themselves don't change. For example, in some database you may need to type in S1 or S2 or S3, but on another platform you may simply need to check off S1, S2, and S3 and then click on a button that combines the lines with an OR. However, in both cases you are still going to combine search lines 1, 2, and 3 using an OR operator.

You may want to look up whether there are other nuances that may be different as you move from one database to another. For example, some databases have character limits for their search lines, etc. Check with a librarian if you come across something that doesn't make sense. 

Each database has a help guide that tells you how to use the advanced functionality (such as the different search fields, operators, limits, filters, etc.). These can typically found directly from the database, or on the database vendor's website. Alternatively, type in the name of the database, the name of the database vendor, and the word "guide" in Google and you should be able to locate it.