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.
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.
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.
|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.||No protocol 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.||Criteria is not specified.||Inclusion & exclusion criteria is stated before the review is started.|
|Search Strategy||Searches are not exhaustive or fully comprehensive.||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.||No formal quality assessment.||Systematically assess risk of bias of individual studies and overall quality of the evidence.|
|Recommended timeframe||Weeks to months.||2-6 months.||
A systematic review is a rigorous, time-consuming undertaking.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
Literature (Narrative) Review
Morris, H., Skouteris, H., Edwards, S., & Rutherford, L. (2015). Obesity prevention interventions in early childhood education and care settings with parental involvement: a systematic review. Early Child Development and Care, 185(8), 1283–1313. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2014.991723
van Rensburg, D. C. C. J., van Rensburg, A. J., Fowler, P., Fullagar, H., Stevens, D., Halson, S., ... & Roach, G. D. (2020). How to manage travel fatigue and jet lag in athletes? A systematic review of interventions. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 54:960-968 http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2019-101635
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
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: March 2021