Skip to Main Content

Systematic Search for Health

Previously known as "Advanced Search Guide". Please update your bookmarks to new URL

Building a primary systematic search

Searching is iterative. You will be building, testing, and refining your search through many drafts as you continue exploring the literature.

Build your search in one database that's most appropriate to your topic, developing that search until you are confident it is comprehensive and fit for purpose. This is referred to as;

The 'primary search'

Line by line search method

Line by line searching in a database involves entering keywords and subject headings individually using the Search History tool, available in most databases. This allows for easy evaluation, addition, and removal of lines, facilitating the creation of concept sets. Place collected keywords and subject headings (including any search tools and filters (e.g. field codes, limiters) from the Library Search Planner in each line of the search.

Group search lines by concept, listing all related keywords and subject headings together, and use OR to combine them before moving onto the next concept. The final search line joins all concept sets with AND. (See the completed Medline search below.)

Structure of a systematic search

At this stage you should have a solid idea of the concepts, and a diverse collection of keywords. These are the basic building blocks of a search strategy. We will demonstrate how those elements are combined with new elements such as line by line searching and subject headings to create a systematic search.


Construction of a line by line systematic search

Activity overview

This image shows an example of how a search appears in Medline Complete via EBSCO database, following the line by line search method.

Construction of a line by line systematic search


S1      TI "physical* activ*" OR AB "physical* activ*"

S2      TI sport* OR AB sport*

S3      TI jogging OR AB jogging

S4      MH Sports+

S5      S1 OR S2 OR S3 OR S4

Lines S1, S2 and S3 are keyword lines with title and abstract fields.

Line S4 is a subject heading line

Line S5 combines concept 1 lines with OR

Lines S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5 form concept 1.


S6      TI adolescen* OR AB adolescen*

S7      TI teen* OR AB teen*

S8      TI youth* OR AB youth*

S9      MH “Adolescent”

S10      MH “Young Adult”

S11      S6 OR S7 OR S8 OR S9 OR S10

Lines S6, S7, S8, S9, S10 and S11 form concept 2.


S12      TI Australia* OR AB Australia*

S13      TI Victoria* OR AB Victoria*

S14      MH Australia+

S15      S12 OR S13 OR S14

Lines S12, S13, S14 and S15 form concept 3.


S16      S5 AND S11 AND S15

Line S16 combines concepts 1, 2 and 3 with AND.


Example of a systematic search

Download this Example MEDLINE Search to see what a full systematic search looks like following the line by line search method.

Benefits of line by line searching

The paragraph and line by line search methods produce the same search with identical results. However, considering the future steps in our searching process, the line by line format is beneficial for systematic searching as:

  • The spaced layout makes it easier to identify errors, such as missing syntax and field codes.
  • Using the database search history tool allows you to easily see if terms are spelt correctly and if they return results independently.
  • Translation of the search to other databases becomes easier! 


Drag the slider left and right to see how a paragraph search looks (left) when expanded into a line by line search (right) in Medline Complete via EBSCOHost. 

Activity overview

This activity shows an example of how a search appears in Medline Complete via EBSCO database when performed through paragraph and line by line search methods. The activity has a vertical slider bar that can be dragged left and right to reveal and hide colours which represent the same concept in the the different search methods.

Paragraph search method

(TI “physical* activ*” OR AB “physical* activ*”) OR (TI sport* OR AB sport*) OR (TI jogging OR AB jogging) OR (MH “Sports+”)

Line by Line search method

S5     S1 OR S2 OR S3 OR S4

S4     MH Sports+  

S3     TI jogging OR AB jogging

S2     TI sport* OR AB sport*

S1     TI "physical* activ*" OR AB "physical* activ*"