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Systematic reviews

A guide to systematic reviews for health and social sciences

What is a systematic review?

This library guide provides an overview of what a systematic review is and how senior librarians in the Library Academic and Research Services team can help students and researchers at the Australian Catholic University during a systematic review process. This guide focuses on systematic reviews in the health sciences setting as well as social sciences. 

A systematic review is a review of a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and reproducible methods to identify, select and critically appraise all relevant research, and to collect and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. A systematic review can be either quantitative or qualitative or both.

Systematic reviews are an approach used in health, education and social policy (as part of evidence based policy or practice). It's much more than a literature review; it follows a strict methodology which means it's transparent, rigorous and replicable.

A quantitative systematic review will include studies that have numerical data. A qualitative systematic review derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants. It will include focus groups, interviews, observations and diaries.

Before you start:

Ask yourself - is your research topic best suited for a systematic review? You might find that a systematic review isn't the best study design for your research topic, due to the scope of your question or the body of literature available. More information on various review types can be found below. Contact your senior librarian for more assistance.

  • Watch the Cochrane video below for an overview
  • Check the table below for the differences between literature, scoping and systematic reviews.
  • What type of review is right for you? See The review decision tree (Cornell University) or consult Right Review- decision support tool.
  • Read some examples of different reviews for health sciences and social sciences.

Table of differences between reviews

  Literature Review Scoping Review Systematic Review
Description Describes, summarises and evaluates existing information. Preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available literature. Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesise research evidence.
Question An overview not necessarily focused on a single question. Addresses a broader research question or set of questions. Focused on a single question.
Protocol No protocol is included. Ideally, a protocol or plan is included. Protocol is planned and specific.
Objectives The goal of the review may be to place one's own research within the existing body of knowledge, or to gather information that supports a particular viewpoint. Often conducted in preparation for conducting a systematic review. Starts with a well-defined research question to be answered by the review. Reviews are conducted with the aim of finding all exisiting evidence in an unbiases, transparent and reproducible way. 
Criteria Criteria is not specified. Eligibility criteria are clearly defined before the review is conducted but may be revisited throughout the review. Inclusion & exclusion criteria is stated before the review is started.
Search Strategy Searches are not exhaustive or fully comprehensive.

Comprehensive sources and explicit and reproducible search strategy. Completeness determined by time/scope restraints.

Comprehensive search conducted in a systematic way that can be repeated. The process is well-documented and reported.
Study selection Often lacks clear reasons for why studies were included or excluded from review. Often broad - may differ depending on resources found. Reasons for including and excluding studies are explicit and informed by the research question.
Quality appraisal Often do not consider study quality or potential biases in study design. Variable - typically not done, or done in narrative form. Rigorous critical appraisal, and evaluation of study quality.
Recommended timeframe Weeks to months. 2-6 months.

9-12+ months.

Adapted from: University of South Australia Library Guide to Systematic Review and Boston University Library Guide to Systematic Reviews in Social Sciences

Steps involved in a systematic review

Steps involved in a systematic review

  1. Construct question
  2. Scoping search
  3. Devise protocol (plan)
  4. Conduct comprehensive search
  5. Select studies against eligibility criteria
  6. Appraise studies using quality checklist
  7. Data extraction
  8. Analyse results
  9. Interpret findings
  10. Disseminate report
A systematic review requires:
Time

A systematic review is a rigorous, time-consuming undertaking.

A team

You need to work with subject experts; at least one other reviewer for screening citations for relevance, and a librarian who can advise on suitable resources and develop the search strategies, if required. Someone is also required to manage the data and write up the report. 

An initial scoping search

This will reveal if a systematic review has already been undertaken on your topic as well as highlight gaps in the knowledge base. A scoping search will also allow you to develop and pilot inclusion/exclusion criteria, and should give you an initial sense of the quantity of existing primary research on your topic (and therefore the scale of the project). 

A clearly focused question

This should flow from your initial search. The question should be worthy of an answer and should strike a suitable balance between being too broad or too narrow in scope. If appropriate, use the PICO framework to identify the important concepts in your question.

Clear inclusion/exclusion criteria

These should be based on your question. Consider all aspects of the topic such as age groups, geographic regions, types of study designs, languages, and the outcome measures that need to be described. Clear eligibility criteria will make it easier to identify relevant articles at the screening stage and prevent you being distracted by interesting but irrelevant studies.

A comprehensive literature search

A systematic approach to searching the literature for Systematic Reviews will help to identify all of the best available literature that addresses your specific question. This must include a search for unpublished studies as well as published ones. It should target an exhaustive set of relevant databases and include a search for grey literature or other relevant sources if appropriate. Search strategies need to be well documented, including enough detail that they can be replicated. The numbers of results from each database search should also be included.

Critical appraisal

Each study meeting the inclusion criteria must be appraised for quality (internal validity) as well as applicability (external validity or generalisability). A critical appraisal tool such as the CASP checklist or the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) tools can guide you in this.

Good citation management

EndNote is a useful tool for organising your search results. After exporting your results from multiple database searches and other sources into a new library, within separate groups, you can then deduplicate for a complete set of results ready for the screening process. For any assistance with EndNote, please contact your senior librarian.

Source: Flinders University Library Guide to Systematic Reviews 

Examples of reviews

Most systematic reviews are currently conducted in fields like health and medicine. Increasingly, systematic reviews are being published in other disciplines such as humanities and education. These articles provide examples of different types of reviews:

Review Types:
Literature (Narrative) Review
  • Owusu-Addo, E., Ofori-Asenso, R., Batchelor, F., Mahtani, K., & Brijnath, B. (2021). Effective implementation approaches for healthy ageing interventions for older people: A rapid review. Archives of gerontology and geriatrics92, 104263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.archger.2020.104263
Scoping Review
Systematic Review
Systematic Review Protocol
For an overview of all types of reviews, the articles below are very useful.

Grant, M.J. and Booth, A. (2009), A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 26: 91-108. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

Munn, Z., Peters, M.D.J., Stern, C.Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A., & Aromataris, E. (2018). Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology,18, 143. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-018-0611-x

Sutton, A., Clowes, M., Preston, L. & Booth, A. (2019). Meeting the review family: exploring review types and associated information retrieval requirements. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 36, 202-222. https://doi.org/10.1111/hir.12276

Help

Carrying out a systematic review is a long and elaborate process. The structure and topic of a systematic review must be devised by the researcher and supervisor, or research team, as a first step.

For assistance with systematic reviews, book a consultation with your senior librarian

Last reviewed: September 2022