Literature search strategies for conducting knowledge-building and theory-generating qualitative systematic reviews

J Adv Nurs. 2013 Jan;69(1):194-204. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2012.06037.x. Epub 2012 May 17.


Aim: To report literature search strategies for the purpose of conducting knowledge-building and theory-generating qualitative systematic reviews.

Background: Qualitative systematic reviews lie on a continuum from knowledge-building and theory-generating to aggregating and summarizing. Different types of literature searches are needed to optimally support these dissimilar reviews.

Data sources: Articles published between 1989-Autumn 2011. These documents were identified using a hermeneutic approach and multiple literature search strategies.

Discussion: Redundancy is not the sole measure of validity when conducting knowledge-building and theory-generating systematic reviews. When conducting these types of reviews, literature searches should be consistent with the goal of fully explicating concepts and the interrelationships among them. To accomplish this objective, a 'berry picking' approach is recommended along with strategies for overcoming barriers to finding qualitative research reports.

Implications: To enhance integrity of knowledge-building and theory-generating systematic reviews, reviewers are urged to make literature search processes as transparent as possible, despite their complexity. This includes fully explaining and rationalizing what databases were used and how they were searched. It also means describing how literature tracking was conducted and grey literature was searched. In the end, the decision to cease searching also needs to be fully explained and rationalized.

Conclusion: Predetermined linear search strategies are unlikely to generate search results that are adequate for purposes of conducting knowledge-building and theory-generating qualitative systematic reviews. Instead, it is recommended that iterative search strategies take shape as reviews evolve.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Information Storage and Retrieval*
  • Review Literature as Topic*