PRESSing search strategies and AMSTARing

This was the first session that I attended as part of the continuing education courses that ran ahead of the EAHIL and ICML conference in Dublin in June 2017. The session was run by Alison Bethel and Morwenna Rogers from the University of Exeter.

We began with a discussion of what a systematic review is. We had to come up with five words as part of our discussion which describe a systematic review. Some of the words we came up with were that it should be thorough, reproducible, transparent, comprehensive and minimise bias.

PRESS is Peer Review Electronic Search Strategy. It is a framework to quality assess an electronic search strategy.

During the session, we talked about what should be included in a search strategy. We had a lengthy discussion about the inclusion of unedited search strategies in a research paper. The consensus on unedited search strategies was that it was best not to as it could lead to confusion with orphan lines in the search strategy. A fully annotated search strategy is most helpful, one that includes the number of results found for each stage of the search. We also talked about the use of search filters as some are a few years old now and may not be as accurate as they were when they were created.

It is important to document how a search strategy was developed, how terms have been included and excluded. It should be noted who did what during the searching and review process. Keeping good records helps when it comes to writing up as it is very easy to forget what you have done.

We analysed some search strategies with the framework and discussed how good the searches were. It was noted that not all search strategies record the platform on which a database was searched, this is something that we should do when documenting a search strategy, to allow the search to be completely replicable to others. This was the part of the session I enjoyed most as I was working with librarians from Germany, Finland, Australia and Norway and we were all finding the same issues and problems with the literature searches we were analysing.

We had a discussion about which databases should be searched when conducting a systematic review. Other librarians stated that they would search Medline, Embase and Pub Med as they all have unique information, which is not included on other databases. Also due to the indexing, it may be easier to find papers on one of these databases than on others.

AMSTAR is a measurement tool to assess the methodological quality of systematic reviews. It is more than just a checklist. Not all reviews are produced with the same care, these can be identified by using AMSTAR.

This was a very enjoyable session and it was good to be able to compare notes and learn from others about searching techniques and strategies. The references below were from the presentation but may be of interest if you would like to read more.


  • SAMPSON, M. et al An evidence-based practice guideline for the peer review of electronic search strategies. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 62, 944-952.
  • ATKINSON, K. M., KOENKA, A. C., SANCHEZ, C. E., MOSHONTZ, H. & COOPER, H. 2015. Reporting standards for literature searches and report inclusion criteria: making research syntheses more transparent and easy to replicate. Research Synthesis Methods, 6, 87-95.
  • CHOJECKI, D. & TJOSVOLD, L. 2016. RE: Documenting and reporting the search process.
  • KABLE, A. K., PICH, J. & MASLIN-PROTHERO, S. E. 2012. A structured approach to documenting a search strategy for publication: a 12 step guideline for authors. Nurse education today, 32, 878-886.
  • NIEDERSTADT, C. & DROSTE, S. 2010. Reporting and presenting information retrieval processes: the need for optimizing common practice in health technology assessment. International journal of technology assessment in health care, 26, 450-457.
  • RADER, T., MANN, M., STANSFIELD, C., COOPER, C. & SAMPSON, M. 2014. Methods for documenting systematic review searches: a discussion of common issues. Research synthesis methods, 5, 98-115.
  • CRAVEN, J., LEVAY, P. 2011. Recording database searches for systematic reviews – what is the value of adding a narrative to peer-review checklists? A case study of NICE interventional procedures guidance. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 6 (4).

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