A systematic review seeks to answer a specific research question by analyzing and synthesizing previously published research.
There are a number of different types of reviews that evaluate research with varying degrees of rigor. What sets a systematic review apart is the use of pre-defined criteria and a rigorous, or systematic, search methodology to minimize bias and gather a large, relevant result set. Reproducibility and transparency in selecting, appraising, and analysis is key.
Systematized Review Assignments
Have you been assigned a systematic review as an assignment? Probably not. Systematic reviews are one of the highest levels of evidence. They take teams of researchers an average of 18 months, or 1139 hours, to complete. Systematized Reviews are more commonly assigned to students. A systematized review gives an initial assessment of a research topic and includes elements of the systematic review process, but falls short of the rigorous standards of a systematic review.
Process Overview and Tools
The systematic review process consists of distinct steps. There are specialized tools to help with each step as well as with the process as a whole.
1. Create a Team
Assemble a team with members who have expertise in the appropriate topic areas, systematic review methods, the literature search process, and quantitative analysis. Together with your team, investigate the best tools for managing your review process.
- SR Toolbox
- Searchable web catalog of tools that support various tasks of the systematic review process.
- AHRQ Effective Health Care Program Tools & Software
- Training modules on review processes, data repositories, tools for screening and analyzing data.
- Cochrane RevMan
- Software to facilitate the writing and editing of protocols and full reviews, perform meta-analysis of data, and produce graphics.
2. Research Question
Formulate a precise research question that fills an information gap and does not duplicate other efforts.
Develop a systematic review protocol that is peer-reviewed and made publicly available. It is recommended that you register your protocol so that it is made publicly available. The protocol should identify the reporting guidelines to be used such as PRISMA.
A systematic review protocol describes the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the review and should be prepared before a review is started. Review protocols should be made publicly available in a registry or database such as:
4. Literature Search
Develop and document a search strategy. Use research by subject to identify the best databases and other sources of research. See our Research Beyond the Basics and Search Strategy pages for general guidance.
Literature Search Tools
- CADTH Finding the Evidence: Literature Searching Tools in Support of Systematic Reviews
- Search aids, strategies and checklists for comprehensive searches.
- ISSG Search Filters Resource
- Search filters by specific study design or focus.
- Checklist for systematic review searches.
Sources for locating clinical trials include:
- ClinicalTrials.gov from the U.S. National Library of Medicine
- International Clinical Trials Registry Platform from the World Health Organization (WHO)
Citation management tools can help you keep your sources organized, can help you collaborate with others, can insert formatted citations into your paper, and format your reference list. UNE provides access to RefWorks , but other options like Endnote, Zotero, or Mendeley may also be helpful or integrate with review tools or software.
Screen results to determine if they meet your inclusion criteria. At least two researchers should be involved in the article review and data extraction process to reduce bias and errors.
Assess included studies for bias. This is called an appraisal, a risk of bias assessment, or a quality assessment.
- JBI Critical Appraisal Tools
- Checklists to assess the quality of research for many review types.
- GRADE Working Group
- Grading criteria for assessing of evidence in health care
- Centre for Evidence Based Medicine Catalogue of Bias.
- Comprehensive catalog of the different types of bias to be on the look for as you appraise research.
Perform an analysis of research data. If studies are of a similar design, you may be able to use statistical methods to perform a meta-analysis. If your studies are not of a similar design, you will need to use a descriptive analysis.
Present the main findings of your evidence analysis and synthesis. Finished reports should include all the steps undertaken and provide enough detail so that the review could be reproduced.
The most widely accepted standard for reporting systematic reviews is PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis).
Publishers may require other specific standards or guidelines. Check the literature for your discipline. Here are some examples of discipline-specific reporting guidelines:
- The EQUATOR Network
- Reporting guidelines for health research by discipline with a searchable database.
- RePorting standards for Systematic Evidence Syntheses (ROSES)
- Conservation and environmental research.
- APA Style Journal Reporting Standards (JARS)
- Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods reporting standards in the behavioral sciences.
Detailed guides to the systematic review process and published standards.
- An Introduction to Systematic Reviews [print book]
- Doing a Systematic Review: A Student’s Guide [print book]
- Cochrane Handbook of Systematic Reviews of Interventions [ebook and print book versions]
- Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews [ebook]
Questions & Help
Undertaking a Systematic Review is a rewarding yet time consuming and intense endeavor. UNE Library Services’ Research & Teaching Librarians will gladly assist with search tips, database options, and helpful resources. At this time we do not have the staff resources to provide a librarian as a member of a systematic review team.