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Where to search

Where should you search?

Watch the video below to learn about why and where you should search for published literature.

Video Length: 3:56

  • The search strategy for a scoping review should aim to be comprehensive in order to identify published and unpublished resources.
  • The JBI recommends starting with an initial search of at least 2 databases relevant to the review topic, followed by an analysis of both the text words contained in the title and abstract and the subject headings used in retrieved papers.
  • Using all identified keywords and subject headings, a comprehensive search can then be developed.
  • You’ll need to search a range of databases. The databases you choose to search will depend on your review questions.
  • Primary databases are comprehensive indices of research literature and contain references to a wide range of original research.
  • As a general rule, you should at least search MEDLINE and Embase for your scoping review.
  • If your question relates to allied health or nursing, you should also search Emcare.
  • It is also recommended to search multidisciplinary databases such as Web of Science or Scopus, as these cover a broad range of subject areas.
  • Secondary databases contain articles such as systematic reviews or meta-analyses, where authors have appraised research studies using set criteria.
  • As a general rule, you should also search secondary databases such as the Cochrane Library and the Joanna Briggs Institute.
  • Only ever search one database at a time. This is important because you will need to report how many resources you found in each database.
  • You may also choose to contact authors of primary studies for further information or additional publications. This should be stated in your protocol.


Primary databases are indexes of research literature that contain records for a wide range of original research. There are key databases that are regarded as having relatively comprehensive coverage in specific disciplinary areas.
For Cochrane Reviews, the Cochrane Handbook mandates search of the Cochrane Review Group's Specialised Register, MEDLINE, and Embase (where available).
Some databases and organisations focus on higher level evidence such as clinical trials and systematic reviews. These collections are smaller in size than the primary databases and many are available freely on the internet.
For Cochrane Reviews it is required to search the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL).
Multidisciplinary databases can also be useful to search, as these typically index material from diverse subject areas. Searching one or more of these is typically done to increase the sensitivity of the search.

How many databases need to be searched?

The short answer is: it depends!

Some of the factors to consider include:

  • the type of review you are undertaking (systematic, scoping, rapid, umbrella, etc.)
  • expectations – your disciplinary area, where you plan to publish, your review team, manuals/guidelines you're following
  • whether your topic is multidisciplinary or focused on a single discipline area
  • how many are reasonable to search and at what point is it likely to be a case of diminishing returns?
  • are you planning to include Grey Literature & Other Sources, e.g. theses and conference proceedings?

No one database can cover all the literature for your research question. While databases may claim to comprehensively cover the literature in a specific area, e.g. nursing, pharmacy, or education, there are many different databases out there which may contain unique records.

The Where to search page can help you decide where to search - or you are welcome to consult a librarian.


Conform with the health sciences standard

The Cochrane Handbook mandates that the following databases are searched:

  • Embase
  • The Cochrane Library

Grey literature

Navigate to the Library's grey literature research guide

You should also consider searching the Grey literature.

Quick guides

Comparing PubMed and MEDLINE via Ovid

MEDLINE (Ovid) ALL accessed via UniSA Library includes all content in PubMed and is updated daily. For more detailed comparison of Ovid MEDLINE and PubMed see:

Sensitivity warning

Database records and thesauri of subject headings contain terms that reflect language and attitudes of the authors and period in which publications were written. Some terms are outdated, offensive, and inappropriate.

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