Background Methodological research to support searching for those doing systematic reviews of epidemiological studies is a relatively neglected area. Our aim was to determine how many databases it is necessary to search to ensure a comprehensive coverage of the literature in diabetes epidemiology, with the aim of examining the efficiency of searching in support of systematic reviews of the epidemiology of diabetes Methods Three approaches were used. First, we defined a set of English language diabetes journals and examined their coverage in bibliographic databases. Second, we searched extensively for diabetes epidemiology articles (in all languages) to determine which are the most useful databases; and third, we analysed the scattering of these articles to determine the core journals in the area. Results The overlap between MEDLINE and Embase for diabetes journals was 59%. A search for diabetes epidemiology articles across both MEDLINE and Embase, showed that MEDLINE alone retrieved about 94% of the total articles. Searching for diabetes epidemiology studies beyond MEDLINE and Embase retrieved no additional English language journal articles. The only diabetes epidemiology studies found by searching beyond MEDLINE and Embase were found in LILACS, and were Spanish or Portuguese language studies from Latin America; no additional English language studies were found. Only 30% of the meeting abstracts were converted to full publication after three years. One third of journal articles were published in just six journals, with Diabetes Care contributing 14.3% of the articles, followed by Diabetic Medicine (5.0%); Diabetes Research & Clinical Practice (4.1%); Diabetologia (4.0%); Diabetes & Metabolism (2.4%) and Diabetes (2.0%). Conclusions Our results show that when searching for articles on diabetes epidemiology, MEDLINE and Embase would suffice for English language papers, with LILACS giving some additional non-English articles from Latin America. Although a MEDLINE-only search will retrieve the vast majority of the relevant literature, Embase and LILACs should also be searched to ensure the search is comprehensive. Searching for meeting abstracts is recommended to alert reviewers to unpublished work. The low rate of full publication of meeting abstracts has the danger of producing bias in reviews. Our findings on scattering show that the core literature in this field is concentrated in just six journals.