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Criminology Master Thesis: Systematic review

Structuring your review question and search terms according to PICO

The starting point when developing a search strategy is a clear and concise research question, which helps you consider the main concepts of your review. The main concepts will also be the basis of your database searches and will guide you when choosing inclusion and exclusion criteria. One way to structure your review question is to use a framework like PICO, which can be used to study the effects of an intervention. For qualitative approaches other frameworks can be used.

  • Population (or Participant or Problem)
  • Intervention
  • Control/counterintervention
  • Outcome

When structuring your search terms according to PICO (or a similar framework) it's not always necessary to search every aspect of the review question. A study may specify particular comparisons or outcomes, but only in the full text of the article, and they may not be very well described in the title or abstract of an article and are often not well covered with subject headings. Therefore using search terms for Control and Outcome (from PICO) might lead to not finding all relevant studies. Instead you can use them as inclusion criteria, but you often must read the whole article to define control and outcome.

Combining search terms

After choosing your main concepts you need to create a broad set of search terms for each concept, which will help you cover your review question. Search terms representing the same concept are combined with OR, and each part of the concept are then combined using AND, to ensure all of the concepts are represented in the final search results. Combining the search terms for the same concept with OR and then combining the different concepts with AND helps you cover a large part of the research area as well as making it clearly defined.

Combining search terms with OR

safety OR secure

  • retrieves any of the search terms
  • the more search terms you commbine with OR the better you cover the research area

Combining search terms with AND

"camera surveillance" AND safety

  • retrieves all of the concepts
  • makes the search narrower

Searching a phrase

"fear of crime"

  • use if you want to search for a specific phrase
  • excludes records where the search terms aren't written as a phrase
  • narrows the search


Polic* retrieves both policing and police

  • Often done with an asterisk (*)
  • searches for word variations
  • broadens the search

Documenting the search process

Documenting your search process helps you remember which search terms you have already tried, but didn't use, so you won't repeat the same search. It will also be a good help when you create your final search documentation. Useful information is:

  • Name of database
  • Date when search was perfprmed
  • Which search terms you used
  • How you combined the search terms

Create database account – save searches and articles

Save searches in Criminology Collection

Click "Create My Research Account" and then complete the registration. The database account is free of charge.


Save articles

Check the box to the left of each reference. Then click on the dots to the right of each reference, you can choose several references at the same time. Choose "Save to my research account".

You can also mail the article, click the envelope in the same menu.


Save your search

  • Click "Save search/alert"
  • Create a name and click "Save"
  • The searh is saved on your account, click on the symbol below:

Reporting the search strategies

Reporting the search strategies of a systematic review allows readers to evaluate the methods applied and to interpret the findings. With this transparency the results can be verified and the searches can be reproduced. The following information makes the searches reproducible:

  • Date
  • Name of databases
  • Search strategy
  • Limits
  • Search results
  • Number of selected studies

You don't need to report all your searches, just the final ones, the ones leading to selection of studies.

Example reporting search process


Search terms


Search results

Number of selected studies


("crime prevention" OR "crime reduction OR "prevent crime") AND ("surveillance camera" AND CCTV OR "closed-circuit television") AND (secure OR safe OR safety) ...

Criminal Justice Database




"crime prevention" OR "crime reduction OR "prevent crime") AND ("surveillance camera" AND CCTV OR "closed-circuit television") AND (secur* OR safe OR percieved safety) ...

ABI/inform Global




"crime prevention" OR "crime reduction OR "prevent crime") AND ("surveillance camera" AND CCTV OR "closed-circuit television") AND (secur* OR safe OR safety) ...

Sociological abstracts