Search Strategy Workflows – recent findings from Cochrane Library member interviews

Search Strategy Workflows – recent findings from Cochrane Library member interviews

Rebecca Costantini, PhD (UX consultant, Wiley), Rachel Craven (Product Lead, Cochrane Library), Samantha Cox (Information Specialist, Cochrane Library), and Colleen Finley (Technical Product Manager, Wiley) discuss the results from recent interviews with information specialists and librarians about their search strategy process.  

Search strategies are used to locate, retrieve, and organize literature across databases.  Librarians and information specialists often create complex search strategies to support multi-line searches for medical staff and researchers, standardize search strategy approaches for larger teams, and evaluate medical evidence (among many other things!). These search strategies often involve specific concepts, syntax, filters, subject headings, or limits that drive the search. The Cochrane Library has dedicated tools to facilitate quality search strategies, including advanced search, which contains search, search manager, medical terms (MeSH), and PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) search.  

We are always looking to improve our tools and services to help users unlock the power of Cochrane evidence, so in November 2023, we interviewed 12 information specialists and librarians from around the world to learn more about their search processes and what they need from us.

What did we learn?

The search process

Many of the information specialists and librarians we spoke with begin their search strategies with a few tasks, including:

  • Develop search terms, such as MeSH terms and other keywords.
  • Conduct preliminary searches.
  • Build, search, and test terms for their search strategies.
  • Prepare the search strategy they are creating to translate into other databases.

Search translation tools are sometimes used to translate initial search strategies so that they are compatible with other databases. They assist in translating search strategies across multiple databases, especially for larger searches.

Internal processes are often established to organize and standardize how search strategies are documented.​ Templates, folder structures, and documents are shared among colleagues and teams; and are sometimes mandated by the organization they work for and the agencies they serve.

Choosing a search tool 

Information specialists and librarians will first consider database scope, and often prioritize a flexible user interface when choosing search tools. The syntax, and available operators, fields and navigation will be an important consideration. For basic scoping, simpler approaches are favored. For searches for systematic reviews, for example, Cochrane Library’s search manager is the tool of choice. Additionally, the content of search strategies affects the choice in search tool, especially for semantically complex searches.

An efficient search process

The information specialists and librarians we spoke to often seek accessible, time-saving search features to facilitate longer, more complex searches. Search tools need to meet the requirements of existing process and be comprehensive. Information specialists and librarians do not have the resources to try new tools if they do not support their current processes. Some of the questions that resulted from these conversations revolved around how AI could play a bigger role in the future of building search strategies.  


Generally, we heard from users that the Cochrane Library search tools - particularly advance search and search manager - provide information specialists and librarians with all the tools they need, and almost everything they want to perform their day-to-day tasks.  

However, we were interested to learn that information specialists and librarians are not always aware of these Cochrane Library search features; or are unable to utilize them fully because of restrictions imposed by internal processes and policies. We also learned that users sometimes find that our interface is not always intuitive, because they are more familiar with other tools that work differently.  

Information specialists and librarians also told us that they valued trust, flexibility and functionality over performance (speed) on Cochrane Library, but that reliability is sometimes an issue; and that improvements in speed of performing tasks would be valued.

Next steps

We have been working with our publisher, Wiley, and their software development partner, Highwire, to improve performance, the speed at which complex searches run; and reliability, allowing users to run complex searches and get the results they need.  

We made several changes in early 2024 that resulted in incremental but significant improvements in these two key areas, and we hope these changes will address the needs of librarians and information specialists.

Our plans for 2024 involve making our training materials more useful and accessible to help information specialists and librarians get the most out of the Cochrane Library’s search tools. We will continue to look at ways of optimizing our search tools to support librarians and information specialists in performing their day-to-day tasks as efficiently as possible.

We continue to work on evolving the Cochrane Library search tools, and really value feedback from our users.

If you are interested in participating in future feedback opportunities about your Cochrane Library experience, complete this form. 

20 March 2024