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Documenting Searches in the Sciences: How & What to Document

The whys & hows of how to document your literature searches & systematic reviews.

What to document

 You should document the following information for your literature search.  Keep in mind that not all of this will go in your paper.  Some of this is to assist you in managing your research.  The PRISMA check list can also be used.  Note, it includes more than the literature search.

Databases Searched 

List all databases (search engines, indexes, etc.) that you search.  Also note both the database AND host/vendor, e.g. Ovid MEDLINE  vs. PubMed MEDLINE;Elsevier Scopus vs.  Elsevier EMBASE

If you search Google Scholar, capture the page of results that you actually perused as documentation with either print-outs or screen captures.  Also note the day and time.   Scholar's content is constantly changing and Google doesn’t explicitly state what the Scholar database contains, so it is difficult to document it and to reproduce the same or similar results.    

Search terms

Keep a list of all the terms you use in your search: subject terms, textwords, truncations, etc. and also how combined.  This may be an addendum to your log. 

Date of Searches 

Note the day and year that the search was performed.

Years/Time periods covered

Don't assume you know what years are being searched.  Make sure to look up and note the years covered in each database.  How far back does it go?  The MEDLINE/PubMed database is being extended back in time.  (The print Index Medicus started in 1879.  The National Library of Medicine is slowly working back to that date.)   You can check how far back PubMed/MEDLINE searched here:

Other databases can vary by your institution’s subscription – always check for the time frame.  Don’t assume you know what it is.

Number of results retrieved

Record how many citations your search retrieved for each search.  Later, you'll be noting how many citations or records made it through each step of your process

Latest update of database available. 

This is similar to years covered in the database, but here you are making the distinction of how current the database was on the day that you searched it AND if you searched up to that date. 

Who did the search

Note who did the search, especially if there was more than one searcher or if you had your subject librarian run the search.


Always handy, a notes field.

How to document

 Search logs

Search Logs are simply a table or chart where you capture the search data as you go.  You can make your own using Word or Excel.  (See pg 25 of the Eppi-Centre handbook for an example )

 Include the following info in your log:

  • Database & Provider
  • Search terms (You can also refer to list vs. listing each search word in your log.)
  • Date search was conducted & by whom
  • Years searched
  • Number of results/hits retrieved
  • Latest update available
  • Comments/notes

Saving searches in databases

Most databases offer the feature to create your own username.  This allows you to save your searches permanently.  In PubMed look for MyNCBI.  For assistance with this in PubMed and other databases, contact us.

Capturing searches & results 

There are several ways you can capture your searches & results to share with others (versus saving them so you can work with them later.)

  • Screen shots of searches
  • Ovid & EBSCO have ‘print strategy’ options
  • Copy & paste search history to Word or other programs
  • Share results in database e.g. MyNCBI allows you to make your saved searches public.  Note that this option may not be acceptable. 

Storing search results

Many researchers use bibliographic managers - EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley - to gather all of the citations found in their literature search.  For most databases it is simple to export the article record to your bibliographic manager.  Again, contact us if you want more info on this.