Where to begin a systematic literature review?

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How do you begin searching for everything that has been written on education technology in the past 10 years? Over the past few weeks, the research sphere team has been grappling with this question.

It seems logical to first decide which search terms we would use in database searches. However, the main issue with this was the sheer number of words we could be using. For example, we initially came up with 146 terms (and counting!) that refer to specific technologies used in the classroom. Now, most systematic literature reviews, of course, dutifully report on the terminology used in their searches. However, not many appeared to explain how they came to choose specific search words.

So what is the process of coming up with your search terms? Applying an iterative approach, we developed a systematic process to classify potential terms into low, medium and high importance.

  1. First, we used Boolean logic in Scopus and ERIC to look for our term of interest together with a search string referring to our geographical focus (i.e., a term relating to LMICs).
  2. If the search predominantly brought up literature that we will not be including in our systematic review (e.g., adult education), we further specified our search (e.g., by including synonyms of ‘primary and secondary education’).
  3. We then recorded the total number of papers brought up by the search engines and identified the number of publications that were relevant for our systematic review (only considering the first page of results).
  4. Finally, we combined information about the volume of publications and their relevance to assign an ‘importance score’ to each potential term which was then used to classify them into low, medium and high relevance categories.

It is our hope that using a rigorous and systematic process from the beginning of our review will ensure its quality and replicability.

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