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I have the following code:

{exp:channel:entries channel="Sectors"}
{parents field="publication_sector" channel="publications" orderby="publication_date" search:parents:publication_type="Book" sort="desc" limit="1"} 

However the search attribute doesn't make any difference to the results returned by parents. I have also tried search:publication_type="Book". The orderby also doesn't work. How can I get the parents tag to behave the way I want it to??

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I don't think Search is an available parameter for the Parents tag pair: http://ellislab.com/expressionengine/user-guide/modules/channel/relationships.html#id9 That might be throwing off the orderby parameter as well.

You could get more than 1 entry in your Parents loop and use conditionals to filter through those for entries with publication_type book. Or you could use something like Stash to save your Parents info as a variable list, and then output it separately, which would give you more control with sort and filter.

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