Comprehensive Searching in the Social Sciences

This guide details instructions and tips for performing comprehensive and systematic searches in the social sciences.

Subject Guide

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Dale Larsen

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What is Systematic Searching?

To understand systematic searching, we first need to understand systematic reviews. According to the A-Z of Social Research, "a systematic review is a comprehensive review of literature which differs from a traditional literature review in that it is conducted in a methodical (or systematic) and unbiased manner, according to a pre-specified protocol, with the aim of synthesising the retrieved information through meta-analysis, often using statistical tests (Dempster, 2009)."

Systematic searching is one step of the systematic review process, where a researcher methodically searches the literature as to be as thorough as possible. Systematic searches combine keyword searching with subject searching and limit results according to inclusion and exclusion criteria. This process is documented in order for it to be reproducible.

Dempster, M. (2009). Systematic review. In J. D. Brewer & R. L. Miller (Eds.), The A-Z of Social Research. London: Sage UK. Retrieved from

Why Systematic Searching?

The purpose of performing a search in a systematic fashion is to:

  1. Be as thorough as possible according to set eligibility criteria and
  2. Allow the search to be reproduced by others.

For these reasons, systematic searches and reviews are most commonly used in medicine, where searches and reviews aim to answer questions about populations, patients, or problems. However, the methods and purpose of systematic reviews and searches are equally as applicable and important in the social sciences.

When we investigate everything written about our specific topic and document the process, not only do we allow it to be reproduced by others, but we are active participants in the scholarly conversation.

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