A simplified search strategy for identifying randomised controlled trials for systematic reviews of health care interventions: a comparison with more exhaustive strategies

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2005 Jul 23:5:23. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-5-23.


Background: It is generally believed that exhaustive searches of bibliographic databases are needed for systematic reviews of health care interventions. The CENTRAL database of controlled trials (RCTs) has been built up by exhaustive searching. The CONSORT statement aims to encourage better reporting, and hence indexing, of RCTs. Our aim was to assess whether developments in the CENTRAL database, and the CONSORT statement, mean that a simplified RCT search strategy for identifying RCTs now suffices for systematic reviews of health care interventions.

Methods: RCTs used in the Cochrane reviews were identified. A brief RCT search strategy (BRSS), consisting of a search of CENTRAL, and then for variants of the word random across all fields (random$.af.) in MEDLINE and EMBASE, was devised and run. Any trials included in the meta-analyses, but missed by the BRSS, were identified. The meta-analyses were then re-run, with and without the missed RCTs, and the differences quantified. The proportion of trials with variants of the word random in the title or abstract was calculated for each year. The number of RCTs retrieved by searching with "random$.af." was compared to the highly sensitive search strategy (HSSS).

Results: The BRSS had a sensitivity of 94%. It found all journal RCTs in 47 of the 57 reviews. The missing RCTs made some significant differences to a small proportion of the total outcomes in only five reviews, but no important differences in conclusions resulted. In the post-CONSORT years, 1997-2003, the percentage of RCTs with random in the title or abstract was 85%, a mean increase of 17% compared to the seven years pre-CONSORT (95% CI, 8.3% to 25.9%). The search using random$.af. reduced the MEDLINE retrieval by 84%, compared to the HSSS, thereby reducing the workload of checking retrievals.

Conclusion: A brief RCT search strategy is now sufficient to locate RCTs for systematic reviews in most cases. Exhaustive searching is no longer cost-effective, because in effect it has already been done for CENTRAL.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Abstracting and Indexing
  • Databases, Bibliographic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Services Research / methods
  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / methods*
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic*
  • Periodicals as Topic
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • Review Literature as Topic
  • Vocabulary