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Systematic Review Resources: Systematic Review Overview

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 attempts to collate all empirical evidence that fits pre-specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a specific research question. The key characteristics of a systematic review are: a clearly defined question with inclusion & exclusion criteria; rigorous & systematic search of the literature; critical appraisal of included studies; data extraction and management; analysis & interpretation of results; and report for publication. Systematic reviews should be carried out according to a predefined protocol that sets out the scope of the systematic review and details of the methodology to be used throughout the review. This guide is intended for systematic review help. For an overview of project planning, see the guide: Project Planning for the Beginner: Home 

Components of a Systematic Review

Key components of a systematic review include:

  • Systematic and extensive searches to identify all the relevant published and unpublished literature.
  • Study selection according to predefined eligibility criteria
  • Assessment of the risk of bias for included studies
  • Presentation of the findings in an independent and impartial manner
  • Discussion of the limitations of the evidence and of the review.

Systematic reviews can evaluate a range of evidence; qualitative, quantitative or both. Appropriate methods of synthesis should be used for different types of evidence.

The systematic review process has been developed to minimize bias and ensure transparency. Methods should be adequately documented so that they can be replicated.

When conducted well, systematic reviews should give us the best possible estimate of any true effect. An assessment of the methodological quality of reviews should highlight the limitations of a review.

Understanding Research Evidence

Understanding and interpreting research evidence is an important part of practicing evidence-informed public health. This short video from the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools explains the types of reviews and what kind are needed.

What does it take to do a systematic review?

Time: On average, systematic reviews require 18 months of preparation.

A team: A systematic review can't be done alone! You need to work with subject experts to clarify issues related to the topic; librarians to develop comprehensive search strategies and identify appropriate databases; reviewers to screen abstracts and read the full text; a statistician who can assist with data analysis; and a project leader to coordinate and write the final report.

A clearly defined question: Clarify the key question(s) of you systematic review and the rationale for each question. Use the PICO framework to identify key concepts of the question. Determine inclusion/exclusion criteria.

A written protocol: You need to write a protocol outlining the study methodology. The protocol should include the rationale for the systematic review, key questions broken into PICO components, inclusion/exclusion criteria, literature searches for published/unpublished literature, data abstraction/data management, assessment of methodological quality of individual studies, data synthesis, and grading the evidence for each key question.

A registered protocolAfter you write the protocol, you should register it with PROSPERO, an International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews. Registration is free and open to anyone undertaking systematic reviews of the effects of interventions and strategies to prevent, diagnose, treat, and monitor health conditions, for which there is a health related outcome.

Comprehensive literature searches: First, identify systematic reviews that may address your key questions. Then, identify appropriate databases and conduct comprehensive and detailed literature searches that can be documented and duplicated.

Citation management: You should have working knowledge of EndNote to help manage citations retrieved from literature searches.

Follow reporting guidelines: Use appropriate guidelines for reporting your review for publication.


For detailed literature information about the process: See Handbooks for Doing Systematic Reviews


Methods and Further Reading

Writing Tools and Resources

The UTHealth School of Public Health Writing Support offers public health communication skills training, with an emphasis on writing. They can help you with the following areas when writing your systematic review:

  • Content development (e.g., thesis statement and supporting paragraphs)
  • Grammar/sentence structure 
  • Punctuation
  • Organization (e.g., developing topic sentences, organizing paragraphs)
  • Documentation/citing evidence (e.g., AMA or APA style)

Please see the SPH Writing Support Services: Getting Started Libguides for information regarding reviewing the literature and writing/publishing in the sciences or to make an appointment for writing assistance consultation.

How can the Library help?

Banner ImageTMCL Library Liaisons can partner with you and advise on how to start a systematic review. 

Basic Service includes: 

  • Provide overview of the systematic review (SR) process
  • Inform researcher of SR standards (IOM, PRISMA, Cochrane)
  • Assist researcher with formulating the research question
  • Suggest databases for searching
  • 1 meeting required

Students needing help with systematic reviews can contact liaison librarians to learn about the process.                                Systematic review service is available to faculty, residents, fellows, and post-docs.  Full Services includes: 

  • Provide overview of the systematic review (SR) process
  • Inform researcher of SR standards (IOM, PRISMA, Cochrane)
  • Assist researcher with formulating the research question
  • Suggest databases for searching
  • Design the main search strategy
  • Translate the search across multiple databases
  • Conduct the search in multiple databases
  • De-duplicate and merge the citations
  • Deliver citations in preferred citation management software (EndNote, Refworks, etc)
  • Provide basic guidance on screening process
  • Provide researcher with several documents to include in publication (partially completed PRISMA flowchart, Citation Data Tracking, and search strategies)
  • Assist in writing Methods section for publication
  • Instruct how to obtain full text of articles through ILL if necessary
  • Run update of searches prior to publication (as required by standards)
  • At least 5 meetings required (once a month recommended)
  • Librarian listed as contributing author is required for this option


Systematic Review Assessment

Make sure you review and complete the Systematic Review and Assessment forms before meeting with the Librarian:

Intro to Systematic Reviews

Here is a PowerPoint presentation that provides a brief overview of Systematic Reviews presented at the UTHealth School of Public Health on by Amy Taylor, Liaison Librarian at the Texas Medical Center Library