Skip to Main Content
Banner Image

Scoping Reviews

Stages of Searching

Unlike most projects, there is a very structured way of searching for Scoping Reviews. I like to think of it in 3 stages even though to some extent these stages occur simultaneously.

Exploratory Searching

Exploratory searching starts the moment you first have the idea to write a review! You want to have an idea of what literature exists before putting together a protocol or developing your Research Question. There are a number of things that you will accomplish through exploratory searching.

  1. Determining if there is enough literature on your topic for a review
  2. Identifying important terms, dates, policies, etc. related to your topic that you will want to keep in mind
  3. Identifying key journals and authors publishing on your topic
  4. Identifying key databases for electronic searches
  5. Focusing your research question into something that is specific and answerable
  6. Developing eligibility criteria by getting an idea of what you will and won't want to include
  7. Testing your search strategy!

Developing a strong search strategy is an essential part of the Scoping Review methodology. Searching systematically means that you have one search string that you use in your identified databases that will capture the greatest amount of relevant sources possible with the least amount of bias. If you're not careful, search strategies can introduce bias into the process. That is why including a librarian in the process is a best practice for Scoping Reviews.

Systematic Search Implementation

Once you have fully tested and edited your search strategy, and you are comfortable with the number and quality of search results it is returning, you will conduct the "final search." This doesn't mean that you won't do any searching after that, it just means that this is the search that you report on in the methods section of your paper. Be sure to document the full search strategy, it's translation for different databases, the date the search was conducted, and the total number of search results gathered from each database. These are all items that you will include in your methods section.

Supplementary Searching

Supplementary searching helps you pick up additional sources that your database search may have missed. There are a variety of strategies that can be used for this stage. Be sure to keep track of these searches. You'll want to reflect them in your PRISMA Flow Diagram and the methods section of your paper.

  • Saved searches and alerts - because the Scoping Review process takes such a long time, it is common for new articles to be published on your topic after you have completed your "final search." In order to ensure that you don't miss any, it is recommended that you save your search in your databases and set up an alert to notify you when new items are added.
  • Snowball Searches - sometimes also called forward and backward citation searching, one of the best ways to identify relevant items is to search through the reference lists of your included studies and to search for newer studies that have in turn cited your included studies. It is also helpful to search the reference lists of any similar scoping or systematic reviews that you identified during your exploratory searching stage.
  • Hand Searches - not all of the key journals for your topic are guaranteed to be covered in your chosen databases, and even if they are, many databases won't yet include articles written in the last year to year and a half. Therefore, it is important to search through the titles and abstracts of all articles published in those key journals to see if there are any that were missed by your search. The best place to go for this is the journal's website.
  • Contact subject experts - for various reasons, some studies conducted on your topic may not have made it to publication. Throughout the process some names will show up time and again. It is recommended that you reach out to these researchers to ask if they have any unpublished studies they might be willing to share with you and to see if they know of any others that you may be missing.
  • Grey Literature Searches - grey literature can be notoriously difficult to identify, and some topics will rely on it more heavily than others. To do your due diligence in identifying grey literature, be sure to check dissertations through a dissertation-specific database. You can also do a basic Google search for organization or government websites that may be publishing reports, white papers, or presentations on your topic.
  • Google Scholar Searches - because of the way that the Google Scholar algorithm works, it cannot be searched systematically. However, it can be a good supplemental search tool. You can use a more simplified version of your search strategy and search through the first 3-5 pages of results to see if any new items are revealed.


It's a great idea to ask a subject librarian about which databases are going to be the best bets for your project. That said, below you can find some of the primary databases for different subject areas.

Best practice for Scoping Reviews is to use at least 3 databases, and one should be a multidisciplinary database.

Sensitivity vs. Specificity

The goal of a good search strategy is to find an appropriate between sensitivity and specificity for your particular research question.

Do you want your search to err on the side of a Specific Search -- one that captures a very narrow, but highly relevant section of the literature, but potentially misses relevant studies?

Or would you rather err on the side of a Sensitive Search -- one that captures a much more broad section of the literature? A sensitive search will likely have many irrelevant studies, but the likelihood of missing relevant studies is significantly lower.

Developing a Search Strategy

Searching is an iterative process, so don't get discouraged if it takes longer to develop your search strategy than you anticipated. During protocol development, you will have identified relevant databases, search terms, and studies. These will help you build your ultimate search strategy that you will report out in your methods section (the more detailed and transparent you are about this process, the better, so it helps to keep track).

  1. Compile identified terms and databases
    • Keep key concepts separate from one another rather than searching in phrases
    • String together synonyms for each concept connected with the Boolean operator OR
      • i.e. (Population) Latinx OR Hispanic OR Mexican OR Chicano
      • (Problem/Issue) acculturative stress OR cultural assimilation OR marginalization OR discrimination
      • (Intervention) community engagement OR community involvement OR civic engagement
  2. Add truncations and wildcards
    • Truncations and wildcards can help you enhance your search. For example, Latin* will search for latinx, latina, latino, and latin@
    • Truncations and wildcards can vary between databases, so find the Help link in your identified databases to ensure you are using the correct ones
  3. Test your search in your identified databases
    • In the EBSCO platform you can search multiple databases together, but it is recommended that you only do this during the testing stage.
    • Focus first on the number of results. Is this what you expected? Is this more search results than you expected or less?
  4. Tweak your search strategy based on what you find
    • Scan titles and abstracts in your search results to identify terms to include or exclude from your search strategy.
    • Try adding or removing quotation marks from phrases in your search strategy.
  5. Test again, test a LOT
    • Don't get discouraged with this process, especially if you are a beginner. Testing your search strategy is good practice and can take a while with many iterations, but there's no real right or wrong answer. What's important is that you feel relatively confident that you are 
  6. Adapt search strategies for different databases
    • Truncations and wildcards, and even boolean operators can vary between databases, so you'll want to adapt your search strategy accordingly.
  7. Conduct final search
    • Conduct searches separately in each database.
    • Keep track of the date, exact strategy used, and number of search results for each database search. You'll want to report this later.