Systematic review tips every librarian should know

Read our systematic review tips for librarians. Learn what they are and discover best-practice search tips and guides for researchers at your institution. You can also register for our webinar to learn more.


Librarians bring unique value to the systematic review process. Your knowledge of databases and search strategies can help researchers at your institution create a robust, well-documented protocol, supported by best-practice tools and resources.

That is, of course, if you’ve helped with systematic reviews many times over.

If you’re new to the field or want to brush up on your knowledge about systematic reviews, this blog is designed to help.

Keep reading to learn the following systematic review tips for librarians:



What is a systematic review?

A systematic review uses a structured and reproducible method to identify, assess and critically appraise all relevant studies in response to a specific research query. It can be either quantitative or qualitative, and will generally take a team of researchers many months to complete.

Systematic reviews differ from narrative literature reviews in a number of ways. For instance, the search strategies for systematic reviews must be replicable, as well as comprehensive and adequately documented. They must be sensitive enough to produce a large number of results, and screened and assessed using specific inclusion and exclusion criteria. This is to ensure researchers, policymakers and the public can make better and more informed decisions based on the results.

In contrast, narrative reviews  are not protocol-driven. They focus on a topic of interest (rather than a predetermined research question) and the search strategy is not specified, less detailed and broader in scope.

Here are some useful questions to ask when determining what kind of review is needed for any given project. And here’s a recent example of a researcher embarking on a systematic literature review.


Supporting a comprehensive search

Undertaking a systematic review is a huge amount of work, costing a great deal of time and money. Therefore, to help ensure eventual publication, researchers and librarians must take care in the preparation, retrieval, appraisal and synthesis of information.  While no ‘true’ way to conduct systematic reviews exists, there are helpful guides to assist with the various steps of the process.

The University of Michigan, for example, showcases a detailed guide for researchers embarking on a systematic review. In addition, PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) also provides resources helpful during the different phases of a systematic review. These include a 27-item checklist and a flow diagram, alongside PRIMSA-P, guidance for the development and reporting of systematic review protocols. It’s worth keeping an eye out for PRISMA-S, too. This forthcoming PRISMA extension is for search strategies (currently in peer review) and will be of great use to librarians.


“Using PRISMA-P and PRISMA helps improve the transparency and completeness of systematic review protocols and completed reviews. This includes the transparency necessary for search strategies. Transparency is a necessary criterion when considering replication.”

David Moher, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa, is a member of the PRISMA group and author of the PRISMA Statement.

Keep reading to learn practical tips for using the Web of Science and EndNote to create a robust and well-documented systematic review search strategy.


The more resources, the better

Determining which research databases and search engines to use is an integral part of any systematic review—and the more resources you use, the better. This helps to reduce your risk of missing relevant literature.

The right mix of available and appropriate resources for your project will likely include:

  • Global citation databases with broad coverage of subjects, including the Web of Science (more on this below)
  • Subject-specific databases, such as PubMed for biomedical literature (although it’s worth noting here that the Web of Science includes MEDLINE, the premier database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine)
  • Open Access databases (the Web of Science has good coverage if already using)
  • Preprint archives, including bioRxiv and medRxiv
  • Resources for grey literature, including census data and clinical trials

While systematic reviews originated in medicine, they have now become common across the sciences and social sciences. For instance, researchers working in these disciplines have begun to adopt evidence synthesis methodologies in their papers as well, and look to librarians for support. The Cornell University Library has listed a number of helpful databases to reference depending on the subject your team is exploring.


It’s worth noting that a repeated keyword search in the same Web of Science database will retrieve almost identical results every time, save for newly-indexed research. This is important for the reproducibility of systematic literature reviews, yet not all databases or search engines do this. It is best to steer clear of those that lack overall transparency or frequently change its search algorithm. This may be detrimental to your search strategy.


Search strategies in the Web of Science

Exploring a global citation database like the Web of Science is a must for any systematic review. The citation network can help you overcome the limitations of keyword searches by uncovering related papers that use alternate terminology across a vast breadth of disciplines. The Web of Science contains multiple databases (more on this below) that you can explore for comprehensive searching and discovery.

Start with Advanced Search

Systematic reviews demand complex search strategies that maximize the sensitivity of your search. With that in mind, we recommend using the Web of Science Advanced Search interface. This enables you to write long, detailed queries and combine search sets quickly and easily.

You can access the Advanced Search interface here, and learn more about using the feature here, or in the video below.


Webinar: Advanced Search


Utilize the Web of Science Core Collection

For many topics, beginning in the Web of Science Core Collection™ to develop and validate your search can help make your search process more manageable. It only includes journals that have met rigorous quality and impact criteria, and includes billions of cited references captured from globally significant journals, books and proceedings (check out its coverage or learn more in our Quick Reference Guide). The content is multidisciplinary. Therefore, you can fine-tune your terms to make sure they strike the right balance between sensitivity and specificity.


Web of Science database


Broaden your search, document your results

Once you’ve developed a good search in the Web of Science Core Collection, you may want to broaden your results. Replicating your search query from the step above in “All Databases” will include content from all of the databases your institution subscribes to in your results. This will help you discover content in formats and document types across all content sets. For example, you may already be familiar with searching MEDLINE for journal content, but imagine expanding that search to include conference papers, patent data, datasets and data studies, books, etc.

In addition, you’ll find papers from a range of international sources that can be difficult to find elsewhere.

These databases include:

  • Chinese Science Citation Database
  • KCI-Korean Journal Database
  • Russian Science Citation Index
  • Arabic Citation Index
  • SciELO (scholarly literature from Latin America, Portugal, Spain and South Africa)

Depending on your institution’s subscription, you may also retrieve additional papers from field-specific databases, like Biosis or INSPEC. Learn more about this step here or in the video below).

Web of Science webinar: All databases

It’s incredibly important you document every step of your search strategy, including paper counts and databases used. Institutional subscriptions to the Web of Science vary. Therefore, it’s good practice to note which resources within the Web of Science you have used when you document your search. If you’re not sure, click “Learn More” at the bottom of the “Select a Database” menu. This will show you the full details about your access.

Start using the Web of Science today. Don’t have access? Contact us.


EndNote and systematic reviews

EndNote is a reference management tool that provides immense value to the systematic review process. It helps you keep track of your search steps and deduplicate references. In addition, it also helps you share results with your collaborators because systematic review screening tools such as DistillerSR and Covidence are set up to ingest EndNote files.

We’ll talk through the tips you need to know in the following section. However, if you’ve never used EndNote before, this video is a good place to gain an overview of the tool (click here for the Mac version).


Webinar: How to use EndNote in six minutes (Windows)


Smart groups and deduplication

Duplicate records are a common occurrence in systematic literature review searches. Once you’ve exported records from multiple databases, it can be challenging keep track of the total documents each one has contributed as you deduplicate your search results. Using EndNote smart groups and “Find Duplicates” features can make this task fast and easy.

EndNote enables you to:

  • Rank, flag or delete articles without altering the original articles from their original folders
  • Create smart groups to automatically show articles from a particular database
  • Easily remove duplicates —either from a single database search or an aggregated set of references. You can do this from your EndNote library with a few clicks of the button.

You can use EndNote to find and group or delete duplicates at any stage—from the moment of import or at your request—using the built-in customizable duplicate checker. EndNote desktop provides up to 15 different fields to compare when performing a “Find Duplicates” search. We discuss this in more detail in our upcoming webinar.


Try the Web of Science and EndNote for systematic reviews today

As a librarian, your in-depth knowledge of databases and search strategies brings unique value to a systematic review research team. By using the tools, tips, and established guidance listed above, you can help to ensure a clear and thorough literature search that strengthens the quality and reproducibility of the completed work.

Start using the Web of Science or EndNote today, or join our upcoming webinar on systematic review tips for librarians to learn more. You can also check out our recent post about citation analysis and calibrating your library collection in uncertain times. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact us.

Start using EndNote today. Don’t have access? Sign up for a free trial.

Want to learn more about EndNote for systematic reviews? Register for our webinar to discover how to find duplicates, create custom output styles and smart groups.


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