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How to Do a Systematic Review: Home

What is a Systematic Review?

Image of systematic review process, studies go through funnel of systematic review process to produce a systematic review.According to the National Library of Medicine a systematic review is

"A review of primary literature in health and health policy that attempts to identify, appraise, and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question.  Its conduct uses explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias in order to produce more reliable findings regarding the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation that can be used to inform decision making."

Source: "Publication Characteristics" National Library of Medicine 

Systematic review authors assess the validity of the studies' findings and present their conclusions about the findings.

What distinguishes them from standard review articles is the narrowly defined research question, thorough documentation of reproduceable search methods, and strict guidelines for including or excluding studies.

Systematic reviews examine only primary source studies that contain methods, materials/participants, results, and conclusions.  Do not include reviews or other systematic reviews in your search, use limits to exclude them or if not limits are available, verify that they are primary sources.

To learn more about what qualifies as a primary source, see the Library's guide:

How to Do a Systematic Review

  1. Check for Existing Systematic Reviews in the Area You are Studying
  • This is important as you don't want to reproduce something that has already been done.
  • Look for a new take on the topic by examining existing systematic reviews or ways to update one.
  • You can find systematic reviews in the following databases:
  1. Define your Question
  • You need to have a narrow question to examine.  Knee Pain or Depression is far too large and encompasses a variety of symptoms and populations.  If you attempt a topic that is too broad, you will have too many studies to assess.
  • Identify what condition you want to study, the population affected, and what treatment/test you want to study.
  • The PICO method of defining a research topic is a good model to use for formulating your research question.

P = Population/Patient

I = Intervention

C = Comparison (other methods of treatment/intervention)

O = Outcome

  1. Develop Guidelines or a Protocol
  • Consider what study designs should be included (this may affect what article limits you use).
  • What interventions will you consider.
  • Whether populations outside of your population can be included.
  • What date range of studies you will look at.
  • Identify which databases to search (consult a librarian for help with this).
  • Consider whether to include studies not written in English (language bias could be a concern depending upon your topic).

Check in with your professor about this step to see what guidance they have for you.

  1. Develop a Plan for Documenting What You Searched, Where, and What Articles you Found
  • Consider a shared document.
  • Consider saving searches in database accounts.
  • Use a citation management program like Zotero or Mendeley.
  1. Search for Relevant Studies
  • Before searching in databases, come up with search terms
    • You should have a series of search terms, both broad and specific in order to pull as many sources as possible, you will most likely not use all of them, but it will give you a pool of sources to decide to include or exclude.
    • Brainstorm a list of search terms, thinking about synonyms, broader terms and also looking for official subject terms assigned in databases (MeSH terms, CINAHL Headings, PyscInfo Thesaurus).
  • As you search, document search terms used, including format and boolean operators (and, or, not) used.
  • Document how many search results are returned.
  • Use filters when needed, keep track of those as well.
  1. Select Studies to Include in the Review
  • Return to the guidelines you developed and exclude those that don't meet your criteria.
  • If working in a group, discuss it together.
  1. Assess the Studies for Quality and Bias.
  2. Synthesize Findings.
  3. Write the Review.

         It may include a flowchart of the process.  PRISMA provides the basic format for this chart

Scoping Review vs. Systematic Review?

A scoping review investigates the depth of existing literature about a topic, it will be a narrow topic, but it will not be done to answer a particular question.  Systematic reviews are designed around a research question.

While the focus is different, the steps are very similar, so use the steps on the left to do your research for either type of review.

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