Searching the scientific literature: implications for quantitative and qualitative reviews

Clin Psychol Rev. 2012 Aug;32(6):553-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2012.06.007. Epub 2012 Jul 7.


Literature reviews are an essential step in the research process and are included in all empirical and review articles. Electronic databases are commonly used to gather this literature. However, several factors can affect the extent to which relevant articles are retrieved, influencing future research and conclusions drawn. The current project examined articles obtained by comparable search strategies in two electronic archives using an exemplar search to illustrate factors that authors should consider when designing their own search strategies. Specifically, literature searches were conducted in PsycINFO and PubMed targeting review articles on two exemplar disorders (bipolar disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and issues of classification and/or differential diagnosis. Articles were coded for relevance and characteristics of article content. The two search engines yielded significantly different proportions of relevant articles overall and by disorder. Keywords differed across search engines for the relevant articles identified. Based on these results, it is recommended that when gathering literature for review papers, multiple search engines should be used, and search syntax and strategies be tailored to the unique capabilities of particular engines. For meta-analyses and systematic reviews, authors may consider reporting the extent to which different archives or sources yielded relevant articles for their particular review.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / methods*
  • Databases, Bibliographic*
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / methods*
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Psychology
  • PubMed
  • Review Literature as Topic
  • Search Engine