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Research Methods: Systematic Reviews


"Systematic reviews...typically involve a detailed and comprehensive plan and search strategy derived a priori, with the goal of reducing bias by identifying, appraising, and synthesizing all relevant studies on a particular topic." (Uman, 2011).

“...a review of the evidence on a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select and critically appraise relevant primary research, and to extract and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review.” (NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, 2001). Systematic reviews are very time intensive and often require a research team.

Why conduct a systematic review?

  • identify and synthesize ALL scholarly research about a particular research issue, this includes both published and unpublished research
  • provide evidence for practice
  • identify gaps in research

Systematic Review Process Diagram

Steps & Elements

  1. Formulate the review question
  2. Define inclusion and exclusion criteria
    1. Keep track of this!
  3. Develop search strategy and locate studies
    1. Keep track of your search strategies including databases used, keywords, limiters / filters (date, country of origin, peer-reviewed, etc.)
  4. Select studies for inclusion based on inclusion and exclusion criteria developed in step 2
  5. Extract data from selected studies
  6. Assess study quality 
  7. Analyze and interpret results including evaluating risk of bias
  8. Disseminate findings (optional and encouraged) with detailed methodologies 

Uman, 2011

Citation Management Software

Citation management software can help you organize the articles and other materials you find during your review. Examples of major software is listed below. Contact the library for assistance in using these!

What's the difference between a scoping review and a systematic review?

According to Arksey and O'Malley (2005): "...a systematic review might typically focus on a well- defined question where appropriate study designs can be identified in advance, whilst a scoping study tends to address broader topics where many different study designs might be applicable."


Comparison between systematic and scoping reviews

Systematic review  Scoping review 
  • Focused research question with narrow parameters 
  • Research question(s) often broad 
  • Inclusion/exclusion usually defined at outset 
  • Inclusion/exclusion can be developed post hoc 
  • Quality filters often applied 
  • Quality not an initial priority 
  • Detailed data extraction 
  • May or may not involve data extraction 
  • Quantitative synthesis often performed 
  • Synthesis more qualitative and typically not quantitative 
  • Formally assess the quality of studies and generates a conclusion relating to the focused research question 
  • Used to identify parameters and gaps in a body of literature 
Armstrong, Hall, Doyle, & Waters, 2011

Additional Resources