Searching two or more databases decreased the risk of missing relevant studies: a metaresearch study

J Clin Epidemiol. 2022 Sep;149:154-164. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2022.05.022. Epub 2022 May 30.


Background and objectives: Assessing changes in coverage, recall, review, conclusions and references not found when searching fewer databases.

Methods: In randomly selected 60 Cochrane reviews, we checked included study publications' coverage (indexation) and recall (findability) using different search approaches with MEDLINE, Embase, and CENTRAL and related them to authors' conclusions and certainty. We assessed characteristics of unfound references.

Results: Overall 1989/2080 included references, were indexed in ≥1 database (coverage = 96%). In reviews where using one of our search approaches would not change conclusions and certainty (n = 44-54), median coverage and recall were highest (range 87.9%-100.0% and 78.2%-93.3%, respectively). Here, searching ≥2 databases reached >95% coverage and ≥87.9% recall. In reviews with unchanged conclusions but less certainty (n = 2-8): 63.3%-79.3% coverage and 45.0%-75.0% recall. In reviews with opposite conclusions (n = 1-3): 63.3%-96.6% and 52.1%-78.7%. In reviews where a conclusion was no longer possible (n = 3-7): 60.6%-86.0% and 20.0%-53.8%. The 265 references that were indexed but unfound were more often abstractless (30% vs. 11%) and older (28% vs. 17% published before 1991) than found references.

Conclusion: Searching ≥2 databases improves coverage and recall and decreases the risk of missing eligible studies. If researchers suspect that relevant articles are difficult to find, supplementary search methods should be used.

Keywords: Database coverage; Literature search; Rapid review; Recall; Search strategy; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abstracting and Indexing*
  • Databases, Bibliographic
  • Databases, Factual
  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval*