Testing the effectiveness of simplified search strategies for updating systematic reviews

J Clin Epidemiol. 2017 Aug;88:148-153. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2017.06.005. Epub 2017 Jun 16.


Objective: The objective of the study was to test the overall effectiveness of a simplified search strategy (SSS) for updating systematic reviews.

Study design and methods: We identified nine systematic reviews undertaken by our research group for which both comprehensive and SSS updates were performed. Three relevant performance measures were estimated, that is, sensitivity, precision, and number needed to read (NNR).

Results: The update reference searches for all nine included systematic reviews identified a total of 55,099 citations that were screened resulting in final inclusion of 163 randomized controlled trials. As compared with reference search, the SSS resulted in 8,239 hits and had a median sensitivity of 83.3%, while precision and NNR were 4.5 times better. During analysis, we found that the SSS performed better for clinically focused topics, with a median sensitivity of 100% and precision and NNR 6 times better than for the reference searches. For broader topics, the sensitivity of the SSS was 80% while precision and NNR were 5.4 times better compared with reference search.

Conclusion: SSS performed well for clinically focused topics and, with a median sensitivity of 100%, could be a viable alternative to a conventional comprehensive search strategy for updating this type of systematic reviews particularly considering the budget constraints and the volume of new literature being published. For broader topics, 80% sensitivity is likely to be considered too low for a systematic review update in most cases, although it might be acceptable if updating a scoping or rapid review.

Keywords: Effective; Search strategy; Systematic reviews; Updating.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / methods*
  • Review Literature as Topic*