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Syst Rev. 2017 Nov 28;6(1):234. doi: 10.1186/s13643-017-0625-1.

A comparison of results of empirical studies of supplementary search techniques and recommendations in review methodology handbooks: a methodological review.

Author information

PenTAG, University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, England.
HEDS, School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England.
Institute of Health Research, University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, England.
European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School, Truro, England.



The purpose and contribution of supplementary search methods in systematic reviews is increasingly acknowledged. Numerous studies have demonstrated their potential in identifying studies or study data that would have been missed by bibliographic database searching alone. What is less certain is how supplementary search methods actually work, how they are applied, and the consequent advantages, disadvantages and resource implications of each search method. The aim of this study is to compare current practice in using supplementary search methods with methodological guidance.


Four methodological handbooks in informing systematic review practice in the UK were read and audited to establish current methodological guidance. Studies evaluating the use of supplementary search methods were identified by searching five bibliographic databases. Studies were included if they (1) reported practical application of a supplementary search method (descriptive) or (2) examined the utility of a supplementary search method (analytical) or (3) identified/explored factors that impact on the utility of a supplementary method, when applied in practice.


Thirty-five studies were included in this review in addition to the four methodological handbooks. Studies were published between 1989 and 2016, and dates of publication of the handbooks ranged from 1994 to 2014. Five supplementary search methods were reviewed: contacting study authors, citation chasing, handsearching, searching trial registers and web searching.


There is reasonable consistency between recommended best practice (handbooks) and current practice (methodological studies) as it relates to the application of supplementary search methods. The methodological studies provide useful information on the effectiveness of the supplementary search methods, often seeking to evaluate aspects of the method to improve effectiveness or efficiency. In this way, the studies advance the understanding of the supplementary search methods. Further research is required, however, so that a rational choice can be made about which supplementary search strategies should be used, and when.


Author contact; Citation searching; Handbooks; Handsearching; Information science; Supplementary searching; Systematic reviews; Trial searching; Web searching

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