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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 18 September 2017


See also Evidence-based health care | Grey literature | Scoping reviews | Search filters & hedges | Snowballing | Systematic review searching

"...Handsearching refers to the planned searching of a journal page by page (i.e. by hand), including editorials, letters, etc., to identify all reports of randomised controlled trials and controlled clinical trials. All identified trials, regardless of topic, are sent to the United States Cochrane Center, for inclusion in CENTRAL, and forwarding to the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) for re-tagging in MEDLINE. Trials that are within the scope of a Collaborative Review Group or Field go into their specialised register of trials. A handsearching manual is available through the US Cochrane Center. A journal handsearch registration form must be completed for each journal title and sent to the US Cochrane Center to avoid duplication of effort..."

Hand-searching (aka., handsearching, hand searching) is a manual method of searching through select journals from cover to cover, page-for-page, for articles and citations relevant to the systematic review. Hand-searching is an extended search technique (beyond Medline) used to find studies that may have been missed during searching or indexing. According to the Cochrane Handbook, "...handsearching involves a manual page-by-page examination of the entire contents of a journal issue or conference proceedings to identify all eligible reports of trials." Handsearching may include checking the reference lists of journal articles, a technique called snowballing. In 2013, Craane et al found that "...hand search[ing] plays a valuable role in identifying randomised controlled trials" beyond Medline and Embase (and sometimes within those databases if missed by the search).

Hand-searching may be thought of as some (or most) of the following:

  • A widely-used expert search method (or extended search technique) first introduced in the 1990s by the Cochrane Collaboration.
  • A type of extended search technique (along with key informant interviews) and discussed in detail by the Cochrane Handbook.
  • A form of manual searching; hand-searching can be thought of as a kind of digital browsing in online contexts.
  • Authors are not routinely expected to undertake handsearching but may be required to do so by the information retrievalist on a research team.
  • While databases aim to index all articles within a journal, it may be important to scan for items that have been missed somehow in the abstracting and indexing process via a thorough review of each journal issue.
  • This can be done online or from the print journal when available. With the availability of so many online alternatives to hand-searching, combined hand- and electronic-search strategies may be necessary to adequately locate all relevant research for narrative and scoping reviews. (See Davis 2003).
  • Hand-searching is typically carried out by hand-searchers (often health librarians) and must be documented along other search strategies.
  • Recent research by health librarians suggests that hand-searching is still a requirement for the systematic review.
  • Although keyword searching and reference harvesting reduce the need to do hand-searches, it is thought that hand-searching (due to non-existent, incomplete and / or inaccurate indexing) supplements searches that are well-structured and documented in the biomedical databases.
  • The law of diminishing returns in searching may mean that hand-searching will be more effective than more searching online.

Use of hand-searching for systematic reviews

"Handsearching" requires a trained person to check a journal from cover to cover, reading each article until they are satisfied whether or not it is definitely or possibly a report of a randomized controlled trial or a quasi-randomized controlled trial." ~ Egger, 2001

As outlined, hand-searching is a manual process of screening pre-defined and pre-selected peer-reviewed biomedical journals, conference proceedings and other publications for relevant materials that have been missed during the indexing process. Hand-searching is widely considered necessary in the systematic review because it:

  • locates relevant articles poorly or inaccurately indexed or unindexed;
  • allows researchers to scan content quickly for relevant studies from the high-impact journals, and
  • ensures that relevant studies are not overlooked

The digital equivalent to hand-searching might best be described as digital-browsing or power-browsing.

Why search by hand?

...hand searching journals has been identified as vitally important to conducting a high quality systematic review
as not all journals are indexed in electronic databases or may be missed by the search strategy used..."
~ Armstrong et al, 2005

Hand-searching increases the likelihood that no major relevant studies will be missed. Due to selective indexing in some databases and search tools and a tendency not to index supplements or special issues such as conference abstracts, handsearching is important for many if not most major research projects where comprehensive retrieval is required. If major journals in a specific field are not obvious to those handsearching, Journal Citation Reports is used to provide a list of the most influential journals with the highest impact factors.

Documentation of handsearching & powerbrowsing

Specific titles and date ranges searched for a systematic review should be included in the search strategies section. It should include journal titles, listed in alphabetical order, and the months and years that have been searched. In addition, any websites that have been consulted, whether it be for the purposes of browsing for information, searching for grey literature or locating experts in the field, should also be documented.

  • synonyms for hand-searching & powerbrowsing: backward chaining, footnote chasing, pearl growing, reference harvesting, reference searching, and so on.

Note: One of the legitimate questions for health librarians in an era where many biomedical journals are born-digital is how hand-searching has changed without the physical objects to hold in hand. Browsing a print journal physically is a tactile experience and differs from browsing the same journal online. Systematic review searchers will need to be cognizant of the differences in handsearching in the digital era and take steps not to miss important studies.

Websites & courses

  • BADERI is an Internet-based platform from which handsearching activities of controlled clinical trials (CCT) can be coordinated. Through a user-friendly interface, BADERI facilitates maintaining a repository and updated reports of the journals that have been handsearched, the number of articles reviewed, and the CCTs identified.



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