Stop searching, and you will find it: Search-Resistant Concepts in Systematic Searching

7 min readJul 11, 2022
Smithson M (1989). Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms. New York, NY: Springer.

Not only might you have heard of this statement, but you have also experienced it. When something is lost, and you concentrate on finding it, it hides away, and you cannot find it. It is not found until you stop searching for it, and it will appear in front of you. Is it another Murphy’s law? I don’t know. What I know is that we practically use this idea in systematic searching. I call them Search-Resistant Concepts.

Search-Resistant Concepts (SRCs) are the concepts that when added to a the search, are more likely to miss the relevant records. In other words, they will bias search towards specificity and reduce the sensitivity in an uncertain way. The best examples are Clinical Outcomes. The three main reasons for existence of such concepts are poor reporting (Visibility and Searchability), lack of standards terminology (Indexability), and our lack of knowledge (Ignorance: Known Unknowns).

Reason 1: Visibility and Searchability (Reporting in Literature)

The first rule to finding a term through free-text or natural language searching is that it should exist in writing, “somewhere” in the paper. By ‘somewhere’ here, I mean the parts of the papers — in technical databases term, fields of the record. Not all parts of the papers are visible and findable through the usual systematic searching methods. Here is why:

  1. Thanks to the horrible open science practice in medicine during the past century, we can only see and read the title and abstract of most academic papers for free. As a result, most search interfaces and databases can only index and search such ‘visible’ parts.
  2. Again thanks to terrible practice by academic publishers, the authors are allowed to have abstracts between 150–400 words. You have to squeeze your 300-page PhD thesis into an 8-page journal paper; if that’s not enough, you must squeeze those pages into a…

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