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Occupational Therapy - Dallas

Occupational therapy research guide for TWU Dallas students, faculty and staff.

Your Search Strategy

Should you decide to register a scoping review, per PRISMA protocols you will need at least one official search strategy conducted on any one database. For a systematic review, you will require official search strategies for all databases used.  

Building Your Search String

Convert Your Research Question into PICO Parameters

Question: Is a home exercise program as effective as supervised occupational therapy for fatigue after a stroke?  

  • Population = Stroke patients
  • Intervention = Home exercise program
  • Comparison = Supervised occupational therapy
  • Outcome = Reduction in fatigue

Build a List of Synonyms

Your search is only as strong as your synonyms, as you want to make sure you gather all possible resources on the topic.

  • Use a spreadsheet to create a list of all possible synonyms, keyword phrases, and subject headings.
  • If you decide to exclude any of the terms, document why you chose not to include it in your search strategy.

Both keywords and subject headings should be included in search terms. Keyword searches will look through the text of an article for whatever word(s) you have specified; a subject heading search will search for articles on a given subject rather than by keywords.

Connect Your Synonyms Using Boolean Operators

Synonyms will be connected using OR; concepts will be connected using AND.


(stroke OR CVA OR "cerebrovascular accident") AND "home exercise program"

Note that the string of synonyms for the population is placed in parentheses. Think of this as a mathematical equation, where the terms for the population need to be gathered before being added to the intervention.

Each intervention/comparison will be searched separately, to help track how many resources are found on each topic.

An Exhaustive Search

Scoping and systematic reviews require exhaustive searches: in theory, they should include searches for everything available on a given subject. This means a search strategy should include:

  • Databases
  • eJournals and books
  • Physical journals and books (this is slowly phasing out as libraries transition to online resources only)
  • Gray literature (scholarly work or material that hasn't been published and/or peer-reviewed, e.g., government reports, student dissertations, or conference proceedings and minutes)
  • Citation pages and cited by references

Searches should seek high sensitivity, which may result in low precision. This means that searches should be as broad as possible in order to capture as many results as possible. This may result in lots of extraneous articles that are not pertinent to the topic and which will end up being eliminated.

Should I Include Previous Systematic Reviews?

One commonly asked question is whether or not you can include other systematic reviews in your review. The answer is yes -- BUT you can only use its citation page, i.e., you can use previous reviews that relate to your topic as a way to identify primary literature on that topic from their reference page(s).

You CANNOT use anything from the review itself. To do so would be to introduce that researcher's bias and quality of work into your own work, e.g., what conclusions they drew, what quotes or statistics they selectively chose to include or exclude.

Gray Literature

Simply put, gray literature is scholarly material that hasn't been published, like government reports, student dissertations, or conference proceedings and minutes. Finding these studies can be difficult, but there are a few online resources that can be used to discover this type of unpublished research.