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Systematic Review Resources: Getting Started

This guide is designed to help you get started on a systematic review and provide guidance on a wide variety of resources.

What is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review is a research method that is designed to answer a research question by identifying, coding, appraising and synthesizing a group of studies. 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). This method is utilized in many disciplines (medicine, public health, education, social sciences, and more) to answer a variety of questions (effectiveness of an intervention or policy, prevalence, tests/diagnosis, and more). Systematic reviews are used to assist group and individuals make decisions to improve people's health. That includes:

  • Recommendations and guidelines
  • Benefit design, coverage and policy decisions
  • Public Policy
  • Performance Measures
  • Research Agendas
  • Individual Patient are
  • Patient Decisions

Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions.)

Steps of a Systematic Review

These are the steps of a Systematic Review adapted from Cochrane Canada 2011, Session three: A 'snapshot' of the steps of conducting a Cochrane Review (part 1).:

Steps of a review (PIECES)

  • P: Planning-  the methods of the systematic review are generally decided before conducting it.  
  • I: Identifying- searching for studies which match the preset criteria in a systematic manner.
  • E: Evaluating- sort all retrieved articles (included or  excluded) and assess the risk of bias for each included study.
  • C: Collecting/combining: each study is coded with preset form, either qualitatively or quantitatively synthesize data.
  • E: Explaining:  placed results of synthesis into context, strengths and weaknesses of the studies. 
  • S: Summarizing: report is provides description of methods and results in a clear and transparent manner.                                       


What to consider when Getting Started

P: Planning

Time requires about 18 months of preparation “…to find out about a healthcare intervention it is worth searching research literature thoroughly to see if the answer is already known. This may require considerable work over many months…” (Cochrane Collaboration)

 The suggested timeline for a Cochrane review is: 

  • Preparation of protocol 1 – 2 months
  • Searches for published and unpublished studies 3-8 months
  • Pilot test of eligibility criteria 2-3 months
  • Inclusion assessments 3-8 months
  • Pilot test of ‘Risk of bias’ assessment 3 months
  • Validity assessments 3-10 months
  • Pilot test of data collection 3 months
  • Data collection 3-10 months
  • Data entry 3-10 months
  • Follow up of missing information 5-11 months
  • Analysis 8-10 months
  • Preparation of review report 1-11 months
  • Keeping the review up-to-date 12 months

Teamyou need to be working with: subject experts to help clarify issues related to the topic; librarians who can develop the comprehensive search strategies and identify the appropriate databases to search; reviewers who can screen abstracts and read the full text; statistician who can assist with the appropriate analysis of the data; and project leader who will coordinate and write the final report

Written protocolyou need a written protocol that outlines the methodology, including the rationale for the systematic review, key questions broken into PICO components, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and literature search for both published and unpublished literature, data abstraction and data management, assessment of methodological quality of individual studies, data synthesis, and grading the evidence for each key question.

Literature searchingyou need to first identify systematic reviews that may already address the key questions; then identify the appropriate databases and conduct a comprehensive and detailed literature search that can be documented and duplicated; 

Citation managementyou need working knowledge of EndNote or other software package to help manage the citations from the literature search

Guidelines for reportingyou need to use the appropriate guideline for reporting your review for publication.

See I: Identifying under the UTHealth School of Public Health Library Systematic Review Resources : Steps of Review (PIECES ) Libguide