Systematic Reviews for the Health Sciences

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For more information, contact your subject librarian or contact the Health Sciences Library.



What is a systematic review?

A systematic review attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question.  It  uses explicit, systematic methods that are selected with a view to minimizing bias, thus providing more reliable findings from which conclusions can be drawn and decisions made (Antman 1992, Oxman 1993). The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  •     a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;
  •     an explicit, reproducible methodology;
  •     a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria;
  •     an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and
  •     a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from .

Stages of a Systematic Review

Step 1. Search for systematic review already completed on your research question
It is important to see what kind of research have already been done on your subject.  Use Cochrane Database of Systematic ReviewCampbell Collaboration and PubMed Clinical Quesries Systematics Review Filter to search what has already been published.

Step 2. Produce a review protocol
The Protocol is a written plan that enables you to set out the approach you will use to answer the review question.

Step 3. Assemble a review group
The librarians are here to help you with your search.  Do not hesitate to communicate with your subject librarian if you have questions along the way.  For more information about what we can do, please consult our Literature Review Services and Literature Review Workplan.

Step 4. Formulate the question(s)
The review question needs to be clear, well defined, appropriate, manageable and relevant to the outcomes that you are seeking.

Step 5. Conduct a thorough search
The aim of this is to identify papers (published and unpublished), using bibliographic databases and other evidence sources, which address your review question.

Step 6. Select relevant studies
In this step you read the titles and abstracts of the studies identified by your searches and discard the ones that aren't at all relevant to your review question. This step also involves obtaining the full-text papers.

Step 7. Appraise the quality of studies
In this step you assess each included full-text paper for methodological quality using an appropriate critical appraisal tool.

Step 8.Extract information from individual studies
This is when you identify the data you require from each paper and summarize these data in tables.

Step 9. Synthesise studies
This is where you scrutinize and synthesis your data, either narratively or through meta-analysis.

Step 10. Report what is known and not known

Step 11. Inform research, policy and practice

Denyer, D.The stages of a systematic review. Retrieved 17/11, 2014, from

Boland, A.,editor of compilation., Cherry, M. G.,editor of compilation., & Dickson, R.,editor of compilation. (Eds.). (2014). Doing a systematic review : A student's guide. London: SAGE.