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Systematic Reviews: Getting Started


book with pencil and text saying Systematic reviews: getting started

This guide will help you through the process of conducting a systematic review. It is based on the SR8 systematic review process.

First, we'll look at what a systematic review is, what you need to perform one, and the standards. From there, you can follow the steps to performing a review:


     Developing your research question Finding, choosing, & storing studies
     Creating inclusion/exclusion criteria Assessing study quality
     Selecting databases Extracting & analyzing data
     Creating & refining your search strategy Writing the review



what is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a comprehensive search of all of the studies, papers, research, and literature revolving around a specific question. It attempts to eliminate any bias, and includes unpublished studies ("grey literature"). The reviewers filter out poorly done studies and make recommendations based on a synthesis of the high quality studies.

The ultimate goal of a systematic review is to change and improve clinical practice.

A systematic review is more detailed than a literature review or a meta-analysis. For more information on the different types of reviews, read Grant and Booth's article "A Typology of Reviews."

Note that if you want to do a meta-analysis, a systematic review must be done first.


What's needed

what is needed?


A team: systematic reviews require at least 3 people: one person very familiar with the topic and at least two reviewers. Usually systematic reviews also have a librarian on the team to assist with searches, protocols, and standards.

Time: a review can take 12-18 months, maybe longer

Adherence to standards

A question

You may also want to investigate the tools available to help with reviewing, data extraction, and reference management


know the standards

To ensure that your review will be unbiased, performed properly, and ultimately have an impact, be sure to follow the published standards for reviews.

Some of the best known standards include:


Developing a protocol

A protocol is necessary for systematic reviews because it reduces the risk of bias, increases transparency, ensures uniformity amongst the research team, and is ultimately what makes the review systematic.

The protocol includes inclusion and exclusion criteria, eligibility, search strategy, and how you'll assess the studies.

Note that to prevent bias you will need to include studies in other languages. Include in your protocol how you will find and translate these studies.

Your search strategy must be documented: where you are searching and what you are searching for (keywords, synonyms, kinds of studies).

Once you have a protocol, register it. One place you can do that is PROSPERO. In addition to increasing transparency, registering your protocol will let others know what you're researching, so they don't duplicate your work.


Librarian assistance

Librarian Collaboration

The Institute of Medicine recommends that systematic review teams “work with a librarian or other information specialist trained in performing systematic reviews to plan the search strategy.” (Standard 3.1.1

Selected Gumberg librarians are expert searchers with advanced training on how to conduct comprehensive literature searches for systematic reviews. By meeting with the librarians during the earliest stages of planning, they can help you develop and conduct the complex literature searches required for systematic reviews.

Some specific ways that the librarians can help you include:

  • Determining if a systematic review has already been done on your proposed topic
  • Recommending specific databases and other information sources.
  • Collaborating with you to translate your research question into reproducible search strategies for relevant databases.
  • Conducting the literature searches.
  • Delivering search results in formats that can work with citation management tools and other systematic review software.
  • Writing the search methodology section of the review
  • Maintaining records of search steps and results and update searches as needed.

If you would like a librarian to participate in your systematic review, please complete this form.

RSS Feed

Here is a PubMed RSS feed with articles about systematic reviews.

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Rebekah Miller's picture
Rebekah Miller