Objectives: To detect term(s) in the Cochrane Highly Sensitive Search Strategy (HSSS) that retain high sensitivity but improve precision in retrieving reports of trials in the PubMed version of medline.
Methods: Individual terms from the PubMed version of the HSSS were added, term by term, to an African HIV/AIDS strategy to identify reports of trials in medline using PubMed. The titles and abstracts of the records retrieved were read by two handsearchers and checked by a clinical epidemiologist. The sensitivity and precision of each term in the three phases of the HSSS were calculated.
Results: Of 7,719 records retrieved, 285 were identified as reports of trials [204 randomized (RCTs); 81 possibly randomized or quasi-randomized (CCTs)]. Phase III had the highest sensitivity (92%). Overall, precision was very low (3.7%). One term, 'random*[tw]', retrieved all RCTs found by our search and improved precision to 29%. The least sensitive terms, yielding no records, were '(doubl* AND mask*)[tw]' and terms containing 'trebl*' or 'tripl*', except for '(tripl* AND blind*)[tw]'. The highest precision per term was for 'Double-blind Method [MeSH]' (76%).
Conclusions: To retrieve all RCTs and CCTs found by our search, seven terms are needed but precision remains low (4.3%). Developments in the methods of search strategy design may help to improve precision while retaining high levels of sensitivity by identifying term(s) which occur frequently in relevant records and are the most efficient at discriminating between different study designs.