Background: The COMET (Core Outcome Measures in Effectiveness Trials) Initiative is developing a publicly accessible online resource to collate the knowledge base for core outcome set development (COS) and the applied work from different health conditions. Ensuring that the database is as comprehensive as possible and keeping it up to date are key to its value for users. This requires the development and application of an optimal, multi-faceted search strategy to identify relevant material. This paper describes the challenges of designing and implementing such a search, outlining the development of the search strategy for studies of COS development, and, in turn, the process for establishing a database of COS.
Methods: We investigated the performance characteristics of this strategy including sensitivity, precision and numbers needed to read. We compared the contribution of databases towards identifying included studies to identify the best combination of methods to retrieve all included studies.
Results: Recall of the search strategies ranged from 4% to 87%, and precision from 0.77% to 1.13%. MEDLINE performed best in terms of recall, retrieving 216 (87%) of the 250 included records, followed by Scopus (44%). The Cochrane Methodology Register found just 4% of the included records. MEDLINE was also the database with the highest precision. The number needed to read varied between 89 (MEDLINE) and 130 (SCOPUS).
Conclusions: We found that two databases and hand searching were required to locate all of the studies in this review. MEDLINE alone retrieved 87% of the included studies, but actually 97% of the included studies were indexed on MEDLINE. The Cochrane Methodology Register did not contribute any records that were not found in the other databases, and will not be included in our future searches to identify studies developing COS. SCOPUS had the lowest precision rate (0.77) and highest number needed to read (130). In future COMET searches for COS a balance needs to be struck between the work involved in screening large numbers of records, the frequency of the searching and the likelihood that eligible studies will be identified by means other than the database searches.