Systematic Reviews of the Literature

A systematic review attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. The key characteristics of a systematic review are: a clearly defined question with inclusion and exclusion criteria; rigorous and systematic search of the literature; critical appraisal of included studies; data extraction and management; analysis and interpretation of results; and report for publication.

Not every research question fits well with the systematic review methodology. Other types of reviews might be better suited for research questions that are broader or that may not have much empirical evidence on the topic.

What does it take to do a systematic review?

    • Time: On average, systematic reviews require 18 months of preparation.
    • A team: A systematic review can't be done alone! You need to work with subject experts to clarify issues related to the topic, librarians to develop comprehensive search strategies and identify appropriate databases, reviewers to screen abstracts and read the full text, a statistician who can assist with data analysis, and a project leader to coordinate and write the final report.
    • Clearly defined question: Clarify the key question(s) for your systematic review and the rationale for each question. Use the PICO framework to identify key concepts of the question. Determine inclusion/exclusion criteria.
    • Written protocol: You will need to write a protocol outlining the study methodology. The protocol should include the rationale for the systematic review, key questions broken into PICO components, inclusion/exclusion criteria, literature searches for published/unpublished literature, data abstraction/data management, assessment of methodological quality of individual studies, data synthesis, and grading the evidence for each key question.
    • Registered protocol: After you write the protocol, you should register it with PROSPERO, an International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews. Registration is free and open to anyone undertaking systematic reviews of the effects of interventions and strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat, and monitor health conditions, for which there is a health related outcome.
    • Comprehensive literature searches: First, identify systematic reviews that may address your key questions. Then, identify appropriate databases and conduct comprehensive and detailed literature searches that can be documented and duplicated.
    • Citation management: You should have a working knowledge of EndNote to help manage citations retrieved from literature searches.
    • Data abstraction and analysis: Use appropriate tools to grade the evidence you find.
    • Follow reporting guidelines: Use appropriate guidelines, such as PRISMA, for reporting your review for publication.

How can the Library help?

Research librarians can partner with you on systematic reviews and other types of review articles. If the systematic review road is right for your question, add us to your author team and we can design and manage complex, thorough searches in multiple databases. We will also provide you with:

    • EndNote libraries of de-duplicated results
    • Tables with detailed search strategies
    • A narrative of the search methodology

Systematic Review Guide

Library's Systematic Review Service