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Systematic Review

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review is commonly characterised by:

  • A well-defined research question
  • Transparent search terms and database selection
  • Exclusion/inclusion criteria with evaluation of search findings
  • A research project structure with elements such as Introduction, Method, Result, Discussion

A systematic review is considered secondary research because it uses research by others and does not involve data collection for a new research project.

Video: Conducting a systematic literature review (3.17 mins). A quick overview and comparison with traditional literature reviews.

How is it different from a traditional literature review?

The purpose of systematic review is different from that of a traditional literature review.

Traditional (narrative) literature review

Systematic review

  • Reviews past research to identify gaps or discrepancies and establish need for new research
  • Provides a foundation that the researcher uses to position their own new research
  • Uses best available evidence in a body of literature to arrive at a conclusion 
  • Provides a foundation from which the researcher(s) can make recommendations

A systematic review further

  • involves a clearly articulated search process and selection criteria of the literature which is closely examined before being included in the review.
  • uses a search and selection procedure that is transparent and can be replicated. 

In a traditional literature review, the researcher

  • selects and examines studies related to the research topic.
  • does not have to make visible the search and selection process and criteria.

See more detailed comparison for both types of reviews in this PDF:

Types of systematic reviews

There are four common types of reviews using systematic methods:

  • Systematic literature reviews
  • Rapid reviews
  • Scoping reviews
  • Integrative reviews
Systematic literature review Rapid review Scoping review Integrative review
  • Uses best available evidence from a broad range of databases to arrive at a conclusion related to a specific problem or intervention
  • Provides a foundation from which the researcher(s) can make recommendations for theory and practice
  • Uses best available evidence from a narrow span of data bases to establish what is known about a problem, policy or practice
  • Presents evidence-based summaries to advise stakeholders
  • Commonly uses a wide range of sources to establish scope, nature and characteristics of a topic or emerging research field, not yet fully reviewed, or which is complex/varied in nature
  • Often provides a preparative review of the nature and extent of research evidence and gaps in knowledge
  • Uses a variety of methodological, empirical and theoretical studies
  • Provides a detailed understanding of an issue or phenomenon to indicate any gaps in knowledge, develop theory, and inform policy or practice

For a more detailed comparison, see this PDF:

A common feature of these reviews is the goal of reducing bias in the search and selection of studies.

This bias mainly refers to:

  • Availability of resources
  • Researcher’s degree of objectivity
  • Degree of similarity in type and content of research

A common strategy for reducing bias:

  • Extended time to perform a thorough search in published and ‘yet to be published’ articles
  • Two or more reviewers following transparent processes of conducting searches and making selections
  • Homogeneity of selected research articles

Right review

Right review is a tool to assist users selecting a review type from the 41 quantitative or qualitative knowledge synthesis methods.

Centre for Evidence Synthesis in Health. (2018, January 4). The steps of a systematic review [Video]. YouTube.

Librarian Carrie Price. (2021, May 18). Systematic vs scoping review: What’s the difference [Video]. YouTube.

Munn, Z., Peters, M. D. J., Stern, C., Tufanaru, C., McArthur, A., & Aromataris, E. (2018). Systematic review or scoping review? Guidance for authors when choosing between a systematic or scoping review approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18, Article 143.

Munn, Z., Stern, C., Aromataris, E., Lockwood, C., & Jordan, Z. (2018). What kind of systematic review should I conduct? A proposed typology and guidance for systematic reviewers in the medical and health sciences. BMC Medical Research Methodology18, Article 5.

Peters, M. D. J., Godfrey, C., McInerney, P., Munn, Z., Tricco, A. C., Khalil, H. (2020). Scoping reviews. In E. Aromataris, & Z. Munn (Eds.), JBI manual for evidence synthesis. Joanna Briggs Institute.

Peters, M. D. J., Marnie, C., Tricco, A. C., Pollock, D., Munn, Z., Alexander, L., McInerney, P., Godfrey, C. M., & Khalil, H. (2020). Updated methodological guidance for the conduct of scoping reviews. JBI Evidence Synthesis18(10), 2119– 2126.

Pringle, J., Mills, K., McAteer, J., Jepson, R., Hogg, E., Anand, N., & Blakemore, S. J. (2016). A systematic review of adolescent physiological development and its relationship with health-related behaviour: A protocol. Systematic Reviews, 5, Article 3.

Temple University Library (2021, June 11). Systematic reviews & other review types. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from

Tricco, A. C., Lillie, E., Zarin, W., O'Brien, K., Colquhoun, H., Kastner, M., Levac, D., Ng, C., Sharpe, J. P., Wilson, K., Kenny, M., Warren, R., Wilson, C., Stelfox, H. T., & Straus, S. E. (2016). A scoping review on the conduct and reporting of scoping reviews. BMC Medical Research Methodology16(1), 15.

Steps in a systematic review

Click on a box below to go to information on that topic.

Planning Searching for existing Formulating the review question Develop a protocol Systematic literature searching Search strategy Search databases Download citations to ref manager Appraisal & synthesis Select studies Extract data Synthesise data Report findings Writing the review Publishing the reveiw

Bettany-Saltikov, J. (2016). How to do a systematic literature review in nursing: A step-by-step guide (2nd ed.). Open University Press.

Cranwell, M. (2021). A mixed-methods systematic review of transitions for caregivers of people living with dementia. SAGE. 

Muka, T., Glisic, M., Milic, J., Verhoog, S., Bohlius, J. Bramer, W., Chowdhury, R., & Franco, O. H(2020). A 24-step guide on how to design, conduct, and successfully publish a systematic review and meta-analysis in medical research. European Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 49–60. https://doi,org/10.1007/s10654-019-00576-5

Gough, D., Oliver, S., & Thomas, J. (Eds.). (2017). An introduction to systematic reviews (2nd ed.). SAGE. 

Gough, D., Oliver, S., & Thomas, J. (Eds.). (2018). Systematic reviews and research. SAGE. 

Biondi-Zoccai, G. (Ed.). (2016). Umbrella reviews: Evidence synthesis with overviews of reviews and meta-epidemiologic studies. Springer. 

Holly, C., Salmond, S., & Saimbert, M. (2021). Comprehensive Systematic Review for Advanced Practice Nursing (3rd ed.). Springer. 

Higgins, J. P. T., Thomas, J., Chandler, J., Cumpston, M., Li, T., Page, M. J., & Welch, V. A. (Eds). (2021). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.2. Cochrane.

Petticrew, M., & Roberts, H. (2006). Systematic reviews in the social sciences: A practical guide. John Wiley & Sons. 

Tawfik, G. M., Dila, K. A. S., Mohamed, M. Y. F., Tam, D. N. H., Kien, N. D., Ahmed, A. M., & Huy, N. T. (2019). A step by step guide for conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis with simulation data. Tropical Medicine Health, 47, Article 46.

Tod, D. (2019). Conducting systematic reviews in sport, exercise, and physical activity. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Toronto, C. E., & Remington, R. (Eds.). (2020). A step-by-step guide to conducting an integrative review. Springer.

 Zawacki-Richter, O., Kerres, M., Bedenlier, S., Bond, M., & Buntins, K. (Eds.). (2020). Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application. Springer.