Have a language expert improve your writing

Run a free plagiarism check in 10 minutes, generate accurate citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base


  • Systematic Review | Definition, Example, & Guide

Systematic Review | Definition, Example & Guide

Published on June 15, 2022 by Shaun Turney . Revised on November 20, 2023.

A systematic review is a type of review that uses repeatable methods to find, select, and synthesize all available evidence. It answers a clearly formulated research question and explicitly states the methods used to arrive at the answer.

They answered the question “What is the effectiveness of probiotics in reducing eczema symptoms and improving quality of life in patients with eczema?”

In this context, a probiotic is a health product that contains live microorganisms and is taken by mouth. Eczema is a common skin condition that causes red, itchy skin.

Table of contents

What is a systematic review, systematic review vs. meta-analysis, systematic review vs. literature review, systematic review vs. scoping review, when to conduct a systematic review, pros and cons of systematic reviews, step-by-step example of a systematic review, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about systematic reviews.

A review is an overview of the research that’s already been completed on a topic.

What makes a systematic review different from other types of reviews is that the research methods are designed to reduce bias . The methods are repeatable, and the approach is formal and systematic:

  • Formulate a research question
  • Develop a protocol
  • Search for all relevant studies
  • Apply the selection criteria
  • Extract the data
  • Synthesize the data
  • Write and publish a report

Although multiple sets of guidelines exist, the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews is among the most widely used. It provides detailed guidelines on how to complete each step of the systematic review process.

Systematic reviews are most commonly used in medical and public health research, but they can also be found in other disciplines.

Systematic reviews typically answer their research question by synthesizing all available evidence and evaluating the quality of the evidence. Synthesizing means bringing together different information to tell a single, cohesive story. The synthesis can be narrative ( qualitative ), quantitative , or both.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Systematic reviews often quantitatively synthesize the evidence using a meta-analysis . A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis, not a type of review.

A meta-analysis is a technique to synthesize results from multiple studies. It’s a statistical analysis that combines the results of two or more studies, usually to estimate an effect size .

A literature review is a type of review that uses a less systematic and formal approach than a systematic review. Typically, an expert in a topic will qualitatively summarize and evaluate previous work, without using a formal, explicit method.

Although literature reviews are often less time-consuming and can be insightful or helpful, they have a higher risk of bias and are less transparent than systematic reviews.

Similar to a systematic review, a scoping review is a type of review that tries to minimize bias by using transparent and repeatable methods.

However, a scoping review isn’t a type of systematic review. The most important difference is the goal: rather than answering a specific question, a scoping review explores a topic. The researcher tries to identify the main concepts, theories, and evidence, as well as gaps in the current research.

Sometimes scoping reviews are an exploratory preparation step for a systematic review, and sometimes they are a standalone project.

Here's why students love Scribbr's proofreading services

Discover proofreading & editing

A systematic review is a good choice of review if you want to answer a question about the effectiveness of an intervention , such as a medical treatment.

To conduct a systematic review, you’ll need the following:

  • A precise question , usually about the effectiveness of an intervention. The question needs to be about a topic that’s previously been studied by multiple researchers. If there’s no previous research, there’s nothing to review.
  • If you’re doing a systematic review on your own (e.g., for a research paper or thesis ), you should take appropriate measures to ensure the validity and reliability of your research.
  • Access to databases and journal archives. Often, your educational institution provides you with access.
  • Time. A professional systematic review is a time-consuming process: it will take the lead author about six months of full-time work. If you’re a student, you should narrow the scope of your systematic review and stick to a tight schedule.
  • Bibliographic, word-processing, spreadsheet, and statistical software . For example, you could use EndNote, Microsoft Word, Excel, and SPSS.

A systematic review has many pros .

  • They minimize research bias by considering all available evidence and evaluating each study for bias.
  • Their methods are transparent , so they can be scrutinized by others.
  • They’re thorough : they summarize all available evidence.
  • They can be replicated and updated by others.

Systematic reviews also have a few cons .

  • They’re time-consuming .
  • They’re narrow in scope : they only answer the precise research question.

The 7 steps for conducting a systematic review are explained with an example.

Step 1: Formulate a research question

Formulating the research question is probably the most important step of a systematic review. A clear research question will:

  • Allow you to more effectively communicate your research to other researchers and practitioners
  • Guide your decisions as you plan and conduct your systematic review

A good research question for a systematic review has four components, which you can remember with the acronym PICO :

  • Population(s) or problem(s)
  • Intervention(s)
  • Comparison(s)

You can rearrange these four components to write your research question:

  • What is the effectiveness of I versus C for O in P ?

Sometimes, you may want to include a fifth component, the type of study design . In this case, the acronym is PICOT .

  • Type of study design(s)
  • The population of patients with eczema
  • The intervention of probiotics
  • In comparison to no treatment, placebo , or non-probiotic treatment
  • The outcome of changes in participant-, parent-, and doctor-rated symptoms of eczema and quality of life
  • Randomized control trials, a type of study design

Their research question was:

  • What is the effectiveness of probiotics versus no treatment, a placebo, or a non-probiotic treatment for reducing eczema symptoms and improving quality of life in patients with eczema?

Step 2: Develop a protocol

A protocol is a document that contains your research plan for the systematic review. This is an important step because having a plan allows you to work more efficiently and reduces bias.

Your protocol should include the following components:

  • Background information : Provide the context of the research question, including why it’s important.
  • Research objective (s) : Rephrase your research question as an objective.
  • Selection criteria: State how you’ll decide which studies to include or exclude from your review.
  • Search strategy: Discuss your plan for finding studies.
  • Analysis: Explain what information you’ll collect from the studies and how you’ll synthesize the data.

If you’re a professional seeking to publish your review, it’s a good idea to bring together an advisory committee . This is a group of about six people who have experience in the topic you’re researching. They can help you make decisions about your protocol.

It’s highly recommended to register your protocol. Registering your protocol means submitting it to a database such as PROSPERO or ClinicalTrials.gov .

Step 3: Search for all relevant studies

Searching for relevant studies is the most time-consuming step of a systematic review.

To reduce bias, it’s important to search for relevant studies very thoroughly. Your strategy will depend on your field and your research question, but sources generally fall into these four categories:

  • Databases: Search multiple databases of peer-reviewed literature, such as PubMed or Scopus . Think carefully about how to phrase your search terms and include multiple synonyms of each word. Use Boolean operators if relevant.
  • Handsearching: In addition to searching the primary sources using databases, you’ll also need to search manually. One strategy is to scan relevant journals or conference proceedings. Another strategy is to scan the reference lists of relevant studies.
  • Gray literature: Gray literature includes documents produced by governments, universities, and other institutions that aren’t published by traditional publishers. Graduate student theses are an important type of gray literature, which you can search using the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) . In medicine, clinical trial registries are another important type of gray literature.
  • Experts: Contact experts in the field to ask if they have unpublished studies that should be included in your review.

At this stage of your review, you won’t read the articles yet. Simply save any potentially relevant citations using bibliographic software, such as Scribbr’s APA or MLA Generator .

  • Databases: EMBASE, PsycINFO, AMED, LILACS, and ISI Web of Science
  • Handsearch: Conference proceedings and reference lists of articles
  • Gray literature: The Cochrane Library, the metaRegister of Controlled Trials, and the Ongoing Skin Trials Register
  • Experts: Authors of unpublished registered trials, pharmaceutical companies, and manufacturers of probiotics

Step 4: Apply the selection criteria

Applying the selection criteria is a three-person job. Two of you will independently read the studies and decide which to include in your review based on the selection criteria you established in your protocol . The third person’s job is to break any ties.

To increase inter-rater reliability , ensure that everyone thoroughly understands the selection criteria before you begin.

If you’re writing a systematic review as a student for an assignment, you might not have a team. In this case, you’ll have to apply the selection criteria on your own; you can mention this as a limitation in your paper’s discussion.

You should apply the selection criteria in two phases:

  • Based on the titles and abstracts : Decide whether each article potentially meets the selection criteria based on the information provided in the abstracts.
  • Based on the full texts: Download the articles that weren’t excluded during the first phase. If an article isn’t available online or through your library, you may need to contact the authors to ask for a copy. Read the articles and decide which articles meet the selection criteria.

It’s very important to keep a meticulous record of why you included or excluded each article. When the selection process is complete, you can summarize what you did using a PRISMA flow diagram .

Next, Boyle and colleagues found the full texts for each of the remaining studies. Boyle and Tang read through the articles to decide if any more studies needed to be excluded based on the selection criteria.

When Boyle and Tang disagreed about whether a study should be excluded, they discussed it with Varigos until the three researchers came to an agreement.

Step 5: Extract the data

Extracting the data means collecting information from the selected studies in a systematic way. There are two types of information you need to collect from each study:

  • Information about the study’s methods and results . The exact information will depend on your research question, but it might include the year, study design , sample size, context, research findings , and conclusions. If any data are missing, you’ll need to contact the study’s authors.
  • Your judgment of the quality of the evidence, including risk of bias .

You should collect this information using forms. You can find sample forms in The Registry of Methods and Tools for Evidence-Informed Decision Making and the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluations Working Group .

Extracting the data is also a three-person job. Two people should do this step independently, and the third person will resolve any disagreements.

They also collected data about possible sources of bias, such as how the study participants were randomized into the control and treatment groups.

Step 6: Synthesize the data

Synthesizing the data means bringing together the information you collected into a single, cohesive story. There are two main approaches to synthesizing the data:

  • Narrative ( qualitative ): Summarize the information in words. You’ll need to discuss the studies and assess their overall quality.
  • Quantitative : Use statistical methods to summarize and compare data from different studies. The most common quantitative approach is a meta-analysis , which allows you to combine results from multiple studies into a summary result.

Generally, you should use both approaches together whenever possible. If you don’t have enough data, or the data from different studies aren’t comparable, then you can take just a narrative approach. However, you should justify why a quantitative approach wasn’t possible.

Boyle and colleagues also divided the studies into subgroups, such as studies about babies, children, and adults, and analyzed the effect sizes within each group.

Step 7: Write and publish a report

The purpose of writing a systematic review article is to share the answer to your research question and explain how you arrived at this answer.

Your article should include the following sections:

  • Abstract : A summary of the review
  • Introduction : Including the rationale and objectives
  • Methods : Including the selection criteria, search method, data extraction method, and synthesis method
  • Results : Including results of the search and selection process, study characteristics, risk of bias in the studies, and synthesis results
  • Discussion : Including interpretation of the results and limitations of the review
  • Conclusion : The answer to your research question and implications for practice, policy, or research

To verify that your report includes everything it needs, you can use the PRISMA checklist .

Once your report is written, you can publish it in a systematic review database, such as the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews , and/or in a peer-reviewed journal.

In their report, Boyle and colleagues concluded that probiotics cannot be recommended for reducing eczema symptoms or improving quality of life in patients with eczema. Note Generative AI tools like ChatGPT can be useful at various stages of the writing and research process and can help you to write your systematic review. However, we strongly advise against trying to pass AI-generated text off as your own work.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Student’s  t -distribution
  • Normal distribution
  • Null and Alternative Hypotheses
  • Chi square tests
  • Confidence interval
  • Quartiles & Quantiles
  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Data cleansing
  • Reproducibility vs Replicability
  • Peer review
  • Prospective cohort study

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Placebo effect
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Hindsight bias
  • Affect heuristic
  • Social desirability bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

A systematic review is secondary research because it uses existing research. You don’t collect new data yourself.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

Turney, S. (2023, November 20). Systematic Review | Definition, Example & Guide. Scribbr. Retrieved April 1, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/systematic-review/

Is this article helpful?

Shaun Turney

Shaun Turney

Other students also liked, how to write a literature review | guide, examples, & templates, how to write a research proposal | examples & templates, what is critical thinking | definition & examples, what is your plagiarism score.

How to write a systematic review


  • 1 The Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Center, Houston, Texas [email protected].
  • 2 Sports Medicine Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  • 3 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  • 4 Sports Medicine Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  • PMID: 23925575
  • DOI: 10.1177/0363546513497567

Background: The role of evidence-based medicine in sports medicine and orthopaedic surgery is rapidly growing. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are also proliferating in the medical literature.

Purpose: To provide the outline necessary for a practitioner to properly understand and/or conduct a systematic review for publication in a sports medicine journal.

Study design: Review.

Methods: The steps of a successful systematic review include the following: identification of an unanswered answerable question; explicit definitions of the investigation's participant(s), intervention(s), comparison(s), and outcome(s); utilization of PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses) guidelines and PROSPERO registration; thorough systematic data extraction; and appropriate grading of the evidence and strength of the recommendations.

Results: An outline to understand and conduct a systematic review is provided, and the difference between meta-analyses and systematic reviews is described. The steps necessary to perform a systematic review are fully explained, including the study purpose, search methodology, data extraction, reporting of results, identification of bias, and reporting of the study's main findings.

Conclusion: Systematic reviews or meta-analyses critically appraise and formally synthesize the best existing evidence to provide a statement of conclusion that answers specific clinical questions. Readers and reviewers, however, must recognize that the quality and strength of recommendations in a review are only as strong as the quality of studies that it analyzes. Thus, great care must be used in the interpretation of bias and extrapolation of the review's findings to translation to clinical practice. Without advanced education on the topic, the reader may follow the steps discussed herein to perform a systematic review.

Keywords: PRISMA; PROSPERO; evidence-based medicine; meta-analysis; systematic review.

© 2013 The Author(s).

Publication types

  • Systematic Review
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Medical Writing / standards*
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Orthopedics*
  • Publishing / standards*
  • Review Literature as Topic*
  • Sports Medicine*

University of Maryland Libraries Logo

Systematic Review

  • Library Help
  • What is a Systematic Review (SR)?

Steps of a Systematic Review

  • Framing a Research Question
  • Developing a Search Strategy
  • Searching the Literature
  • Managing the Process
  • Meta-analysis
  • Publishing your Systematic Review

Forms and templates

Logos of MS Word and MS Excel

Image: David Parmenter's Shop

  • PICO Template
  • Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria
  • Database Search Log
  • Review Matrix
  • Cochrane Tool for Assessing Risk of Bias in Included Studies

   • PRISMA Flow Diagram  - Record the numbers of retrieved references and included/excluded studies. You can use the Create Flow Diagram tool to automate the process.

   •  PRISMA Checklist - Checklist of items to include when reporting a systematic review or meta-analysis

PRISMA 2020 and PRISMA-S: Common Questions on Tracking Records and the Flow Diagram

  • PROSPERO Template
  • Manuscript Template
  • Steps of SR (text)
  • Steps of SR (visual)
  • Steps of SR (PIECES)

Adapted from  A Guide to Conducting Systematic Reviews: Steps in a Systematic Review by Cornell University Library

Source: Cochrane Consumers and Communications  (infographics are free to use and licensed under Creative Commons )

Check the following visual resources titled " What Are Systematic Reviews?"

  • Video  with closed captions available
  • Animated Storyboard
  • << Previous: What is a Systematic Review (SR)?
  • Next: Framing a Research Question >>
  • Last Updated: Mar 4, 2024 12:09 PM
  • URL: https://lib.guides.umd.edu/SR

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

The .gov means it’s official. Federal government websites often end in .gov or .mil. Before sharing sensitive information, make sure you’re on a federal government site.

The site is secure. The https:// ensures that you are connecting to the official website and that any information you provide is encrypted and transmitted securely.

  • Publications
  • Account settings

Preview improvements coming to the PMC website in October 2024. Learn More or Try it out now .

  • Advanced Search
  • Journal List
  • Int J Prev Med

How to Write a Systematic Review: A Narrative Review

Ali hasanpour dehkordi.

Social Determinants of Health Research Center, Shahrekord University of Medical Sciences, Shahrekord, Iran

Elaheh Mazaheri

1 Health Information Technology Research Center, Student Research Committee, Department of Medical Library and Information Sciences, School of Management and Medical Information Sciences, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran

Hanan A. Ibrahim

2 Department of International Relations, College of Law, Bayan University, Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

Sahar Dalvand

3 MSc in Biostatistics, Health Promotion Research Center, Iran University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran

Reza Ghanei Gheshlagh

4 Spiritual Health Research Center, Research Institute for Health Development, Kurdistan University of Medical Sciences, Sanandaj, Iran

In recent years, published systematic reviews in the world and in Iran have been increasing. These studies are an important resource to answer evidence-based clinical questions and assist health policy-makers and students who want to identify evidence gaps in published research. Systematic review studies, with or without meta-analysis, synthesize all available evidence from studies focused on the same research question. In this study, the steps for a systematic review such as research question design and identification, the search for qualified published studies, the extraction and synthesis of information that pertain to the research question, and interpretation of the results are presented in details. This will be helpful to all interested researchers.

A systematic review, as its name suggests, is a systematic way of collecting, evaluating, integrating, and presenting findings from several studies on a specific question or topic.[ 1 ] A systematic review is a research that, by identifying and combining evidence, is tailored to and answers the research question, based on an assessment of all relevant studies.[ 2 , 3 ] To identify assess and interpret available research, identify effective and ineffective health-care interventions, provide integrated documentation to help decision-making, and identify the gap between studies is one of the most important reasons for conducting systematic review studies.[ 4 ]

In the review studies, the latest scientific information about a particular topic is criticized. In these studies, the terms of review, systematic review, and meta-analysis are used instead. A systematic review is done in one of two methods, quantitative (meta-analysis) and qualitative. In a meta-analysis, the results of two or more studies for the evaluation of say health interventions are combined to measure the effect of treatment, while in the qualitative method, the findings of other studies are combined without using statistical methods.[ 5 ]

Since 1999, various guidelines, including the QUORUM, the MOOSE, the STROBE, the CONSORT, and the QUADAS, have been introduced for reporting meta-analyses. But recently the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) statement has gained widespread popularity.[ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 ] The systematic review process based on the PRISMA statement includes four steps of how to formulate research questions, define the eligibility criteria, identify all relevant studies, extract and synthesize data, and deduce and present results (answers to research questions).[ 2 ]

Systematic Review Protocol

Systematic reviews start with a protocol. The protocol is a researcher road map that outlines the goals, methodology, and outcomes of the research. Many journals advise writers to use the PRISMA statement to write the protocol.[ 10 ] The PRISMA checklist includes 27 items related to the content of a systematic review and meta-analysis and includes abstracts, methods, results, discussions, and financial resources.[ 11 ] PRISMA helps writers improve their systematic review and meta-analysis report. Reviewers and editors of medical journals acknowledge that while PRISMA may not be used as a tool to assess the methodological quality, it does help them to publish a better study article [ Figure 1 ].[ 12 ]

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is IJPVM-12-27-g001.jpg

Screening process and articles selection according to the PRISMA guidelines

The main step in designing the protocol is to define the main objectives of the study and provide some background information. Before starting a systematic review, it is important to assess that your study is not a duplicate; therefore, in search of published research, it is necessary to review PREOSPERO and the Cochrane Database of Systematic. Sometimes it is better to search, in four databases, related systematic reviews that have already been published (PubMed, Web of Sciences, Scopus, Cochrane), published systematic review protocols (PubMed, Web of Sciences, Scopus, Cochrane), systematic review protocols that have already been registered but have not been published (PROSPERO, Cochrane), and finally related published articles (PubMed, Web of Sciences, Scopus, Cochrane). The goal is to reduce duplicate research and keep up-to-date systematic reviews.[ 13 ]

Research questions

Writing a research question is the first step in systematic review that summarizes the main goal of the study.[ 14 ] The research question determines which types of studies should be included in the analysis (quantitative, qualitative, methodic mix, review overviews, or other studies). Sometimes a research question may be broken down into several more detailed questions.[ 15 ] The vague questions (such as: is walking helpful?) makes the researcher fail to be well focused on the collected studies or analyze them appropriately.[ 16 ] On the other hand, if the research question is rigid and restrictive (e.g., walking for 43 min and 3 times a week is better than walking for 38 min and 4 times a week?), there may not be enough studies in this area to answer this question and hence the generalizability of the findings to other populations will be reduced.[ 16 , 17 ] A good question in systematic review should include components that are PICOS style which include population (P), intervention (I), comparison (C), outcome (O), and setting (S).[ 18 ] Regarding the purpose of the study, control in clinical trials or pre-poststudies can replace C.[ 19 ]

Search and identify eligible texts

After clarifying the research question and before searching the databases, it is necessary to specify searching methods, articles screening, studies eligibility check, check of the references in eligible studies, data extraction, and data analysis. This helps researchers ensure that potential biases in the selection of potential studies are minimized.[ 14 , 17 ] It should also look at details such as which published and unpublished literature have been searched, how they were searched, by which mechanism they were searched, and what are the inclusion and exclusion criteria.[ 4 ] First, all studies are searched and collected according to predefined keywords; then the title, abstract, and the entire text are screened for relevance by the authors.[ 13 ] By screening articles based on their titles, researchers can quickly decide on whether to retain or remove an article. If more information is needed, the abstracts of the articles will also be reviewed. In the next step, the full text of the articles will be reviewed to identify the relevant articles, and the reason for the removal of excluded articles is reported.[ 20 ] Finally, it is recommended that the process of searching, selecting, and screening articles be reported as a flowchart.[ 21 ] By increasing research, finding up-to-date and relevant information has become more difficult.[ 22 ]

Currently, there is no specific guideline as to which databases should be searched, which database is the best, and how many should be searched; but overall, it is advisable to search broadly. Because no database covers all health topics, it is recommended to use several databases to search.[ 23 ] According to the A MeaSurement Tool to Assess Systematic Reviews scale (AMSTAR) at least two databases should be searched in systematic and meta-analysis, although more comprehensive and accurate results can be obtained by increasing the number of searched databases.[ 24 ] The type of database to be searched depends on the systematic review question. For example, in a clinical trial study, it is recommended that Cochrane, multi-regional clinical trial (mRCTs), and International Clinical Trials Registry Platform be searched.[ 25 ]

For example, MEDLINE, a product of the National Library of Medicine in the United States of America, focuses on peer-reviewed articles in biomedical and health issues, while Embase covers the broad field of pharmacology and summaries of conferences. CINAHL is a great resource for nursing and health research and PsycINFO is a great database for psychology, psychiatry, counseling, addiction, and behavioral problems. Also, national and regional databases can be used to search related articles.[ 26 , 27 ] In addition, the search for conferences and gray literature helps to resolve the file-drawn problem (negative studies that may not be published yet).[ 26 ] If a systematic review is carried out on articles in a particular country or region, the databases in that region or country should also be investigated. For example, Iranian researchers can use national databases such as Scientific Information Database and MagIran. Comprehensive search to identify the maximum number of existing studies leads to a minimization of the selection bias. In the search process, the available databases should be used as much as possible, since many databases are overlapping.[ 17 ] Searching 12 databases (PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, EMBASE, GHL, VHL, Cochrane, Google Scholar, Clinical trials.gov, mRCTs, POPLINE, and SIGLE) covers all articles published in the field of medicine and health.[ 25 ] Some have suggested that references management software be used to search for more easy identification and removal of duplicate articles from several different databases.[ 20 ] At least one search strategy is presented in the article.[ 21 ]

Quality assessment

The methodological quality assessment of articles is a key step in systematic review that helps identify systemic errors (bias) in results and interpretations. In systematic review studies, unlike other review studies, qualitative assessment or risk of bias is required. There are currently several tools available to review the quality of the articles. The overall score of these tools may not provide sufficient information on the strengths and weaknesses of the studies.[ 28 ] At least two reviewers should independently evaluate the quality of the articles, and if there is any objection, the third author should be asked to examine the article or the two researchers agree on the discussion. Some believe that the study of the quality of studies should be done by removing the name of the journal, title, authors, and institutions in a Blinded fashion.[ 29 ]

There are several ways for quality assessment, such as Sack's quality assessment (1988),[ 30 ] overview quality assessment questionnaire (1991),[ 31 ] CASP (Critical Appraisal Skills Program),[ 32 ] and AMSTAR (2007),[ 33 ] Besides, CASP,[ 34 ] the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence,[ 35 ] and the Joanna Briggs Institute System for the Unified Management, Assessment and Review of Information checklists.[ 30 , 36 ] However, it is worth mentioning that there is no single tool for assessing the quality of all types of reviews, but each is more applicable to some types of reviews. Often, the STROBE tool is used to check the quality of articles. It reviews the title and abstract (item 1), introduction (items 2 and 3), implementation method (items 4–12), findings (items 13–17), discussion (Items 18–21), and funding (item 22). Eighteen items are used to review all articles, but four items (6, 12, 14, and 15) apply in certain situations.[ 9 ] The quality of interventional articles is often evaluated by the JADAD tool, which consists of three sections of randomization (2 scores), blinding (2 scores), and patient count (1 scores).[ 29 ]

Data extraction

At this stage, the researchers extract the necessary information in the selected articles. Elamin believes that reviewing the titles and abstracts and data extraction is a key step in the review process, which is often carried out by two of the research team independently, and ultimately, the results are compared.[ 37 ] This step aimed to prevent selection bias and it is recommended that the chance of agreement between the two researchers (Kappa coefficient) be reported at the end.[ 26 ] Although data collection forms may differ in systematic reviews, they all have information such as first author, year of publication, sample size, target community, region, and outcome. The purpose of data synthesis is to collect the findings of eligible studies, evaluate the strengths of the findings of the studies, and summarize the results. In data synthesis, we can use different analysis frameworks such as meta-ethnography, meta-analysis, or thematic synthesis.[ 38 ] Finally, after quality assessment, data analysis is conducted. The first step in this section is to provide a descriptive evaluation of each study and present the findings in a tabular form. Reviewing this table can determine how to combine and analyze various studies.[ 28 ] The data synthesis approach depends on the nature of the research question and the nature of the initial research studies.[ 39 ] After reviewing the bias and the abstract of the data, it is decided that the synthesis is carried out quantitatively or qualitatively. In case of conceptual heterogeneity (systematic differences in the study design, population, and interventions), the generalizability of the findings will be reduced and the study will not be meta-analysis. The meta-analysis study allows the estimation of the effect size, which is reported as the odds ratio, relative risk, hazard ratio, prevalence, correlation, sensitivity, specificity, and incidence with a confidence interval.[ 26 ]

Estimation of the effect size in systematic review and meta-analysis studies varies according to the type of studies entered into the analysis. Unlike the mean, prevalence, or incidence index, in odds ratio, relative risk, and hazard ratio, it is necessary to combine logarithm and logarithmic standard error of these statistics [ Table 1 ].

Effect size in systematic review and meta-analysis

OR=Odds ratio; RR=Relative risk; RCT= Randomized controlled trial; PPV: positive predictive value; NPV: negative predictive value; PLR: positive likelihood ratio; NLR: negative likelihood ratio; DOR: diagnostic odds ratio

Interpreting and presenting results (answers to research questions)

A systematic review ends with the interpretation of results. At this stage, the results of the study are summarized and the conclusions are presented to improve clinical and therapeutic decision-making. A systematic review with or without meta-analysis provides the best evidence available in the hierarchy of evidence-based practice.[ 14 ] Using meta-analysis can provide explicit conclusions. Conceptually, meta-analysis is used to combine the results of two or more studies that are similar to the specific intervention and the similar outcomes. In meta-analysis, instead of the simple average of the results of various studies, the weighted average of studies is reported, meaning studies with larger sample sizes account for more weight. To combine the results of various studies, we can use two models of fixed and random effects. In the fixed-effect model, it is assumed that the parameters studied are constant in all studies, and in the random-effect model, the measured parameter is assumed to be distributed between the studies and each study has measured some of it. This model offers a more conservative estimate.[ 40 ]

Three types of homogeneity tests can be used: (1) forest plot, (2) Cochrane's Q test (Chi-squared), and (3) Higgins I 2 statistics. In the forest plot, more overlap between confidence intervals indicates more homogeneity. In the Q statistic, when the P value is less than 0.1, it indicates heterogeneity exists and a random-effect model should be used.[ 41 ] Various tests such as the I 2 index are used to determine heterogeneity, values between 0 and 100; the values below 25%, between 25% and 50%, and above 75% indicate low, moderate, and high levels of heterogeneity, respectively.[ 26 , 42 ] The results of the meta-analyzing study are presented graphically using the forest plot, which shows the statistical weight of each study with a 95% confidence interval and a standard error of the mean.[ 40 ]

The importance of meta-analyses and systematic reviews in providing evidence useful in making clinical and policy decisions is ever-increasing. Nevertheless, they are prone to publication bias that occurs when positive or significant results are preferred for publication.[ 43 ] Song maintains that studies reporting a certain direction of results or powerful correlations may be more likely to be published than the studies which do not.[ 44 ] In addition, when searching for meta-analyses, gray literature (e.g., dissertations, conference abstracts, or book chapters) and unpublished studies may be missed. Moreover, meta-analyses only based on published studies may exaggerate the estimates of effect sizes; as a result, patients may be exposed to harmful or ineffective treatment methods.[ 44 , 45 ] However, there are some tests that can help in detecting negative expected results that are not included in a review due to publication bias.[ 46 ] In addition, publication bias can be reduced through searching for data that are not published.

Systematic reviews and meta-analyses have certain advantages; some of the most important ones are as follows: examining differences in the findings of different studies, summarizing results from various studies, increased accuracy of estimating effects, increased statistical power, overcoming problems related to small sample sizes, resolving controversies from disagreeing studies, increased generalizability of results, determining the possible need for new studies, overcoming the limitations of narrative reviews, and making new hypotheses for further research.[ 47 , 48 ]

Despite the importance of systematic reviews, the author may face numerous problems in searching, screening, and synthesizing data during this process. A systematic review requires extensive access to databases and journals that can be costly for nonacademic researchers.[ 13 ] Also, in reviewing the inclusion and exclusion criteria, the inevitable mindsets of browsers may be involved and the criteria are interpreted differently from each other.[ 49 ] Lee refers to some disadvantages of these studies, the most significant ones are as follows: a research field cannot be summarized by one number, publication bias, heterogeneity, combining unrelated things, being vulnerable to subjectivity, failing to account for all confounders, comparing variables that are not comparable, just focusing on main effects, and possible inconsistency with results of randomized trials.[ 47 ] Different types of programs are available to perform meta-analysis. Some of the most commonly used statistical programs are general statistical packages, including SAS, SPSS, R, and Stata. Using flexible commands in these programs, meta-analyses can be easily run and the results can be readily plotted out. However, these statistical programs are often expensive. An alternative to using statistical packages is to use programs designed for meta-analysis, including Metawin, RevMan, and Comprehensive Meta-analysis. However, these programs may have limitations, including that they can accept few data formats and do not provide much opportunity to set the graphical display of findings. Another alternative is to use Microsoft Excel. Although it is not a free software, it is usually found in many computers.[ 20 , 50 ]

A systematic review study is a powerful and valuable tool for answering research questions, generating new hypotheses, and identifying areas where there is a lack of tangible knowledge. A systematic review study provides an excellent opportunity for researchers to improve critical assessment and evidence synthesis skills.

Authors' contributions

All authors contributed equally to this work.

Financial support and sponsorship

Conflicts of interest.

There are no conflicts of interest.

Conducting a Systematic Review: A Practical Guide

  • Reference work entry
  • First Online: 13 January 2019
  • Cite this reference work entry

Book cover

  • Freya MacMillan 2 ,
  • Kate A. McBride 3 ,
  • Emma S. George 4 &
  • Genevieve Z. Steiner 5  

2235 Accesses

1 Citations

It can be challenging to conduct a systematic review with limited experience and skills in undertaking such a task. This chapter provides a practical guide to undertaking a systematic review, providing step-by-step instructions to guide the individual through the process from start to finish. The chapter begins with defining what a systematic review is, reviewing its various components, turning a research question into a search strategy, developing a systematic review protocol, followed by searching for relevant literature and managing citations. Next, the chapter focuses on documenting the characteristics of included studies and summarizing findings, extracting data, methods for assessing risk of bias and considering heterogeneity, and undertaking meta-analyses. Last, the chapter explores creating a narrative and interpreting findings. Practical tips and examples from existing literature are utilized throughout the chapter to assist readers in their learning. By the end of this chapter, the reader will have the knowledge to conduct their own systematic review.

  • Systematic review
  • Search strategy
  • Risk of bias
  • Heterogeneity
  • Meta-analysis
  • Forest plot
  • Funnel plot
  • Meta-synthesis

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Barbour RS. Checklists for improving rigour in qualitative research: a case of the tail wagging the dog? BMJ. 2001;322(7294):1115–7.

Article   Google Scholar  

Butler A, Hall H, Copnell B. A guide to writing a qualitative systematic review protocol to enhance evidence-based practice in nursing and health care. Worldviews Evid-Based Nurs. 2016;13(3):241–9.

Cook DJ, Mulrow CD, Haynes RB. Systematic reviews: synthesis of best evidence for clinical decisions. Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(5):376–80.

Dixon-Woods M, Bonas S, Booth A, Jones DR, Miller T, Sutton AJ, … Young B. How can systematic reviews incorporate qualitative research? A critical perspective. Qual Res. 2006;6(1):27–44. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794106058867 .

Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper: the basics of evidence-based medicine. 4th ed. Chichester/Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.

Google Scholar  

Hannes K, Lockwood C, Pearson A. A comparative analysis of three online appraisal instruments’ ability to assess validity in qualitative research. Qual Health Res. 2010;20(12):1736–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310378656 .

Higgins JPT, Green S. Cochrane handbook for systematic reviews of interventions (Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]). The Cochrane Collaboration; 2011.  http://handbook-5-1.cochrane.org/

Higgins JPT, Altman DG, Gøtzsche PC, Jüni P, Moher D, Oxman AD, … Sterne JAC. The Cochrane Collaboration’s tool for assessing risk of bias in randomised trials. BMJ. 2011;343. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d5928 .

Hillier S, Grimmer-Somers K, Merlin T, Middleton P, Salisbury J, Tooher R, Weston A. FORM: an Australian method for formulating and grading recommendations in evidence-based clinical guidelines. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2011;11:23. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-11-23 .

Humphreys DK, Panter J, Ogilvie D. Questioning the application of risk of bias tools in appraising evidence from natural experimental studies: critical reflections on Benton et al., IJBNPA 2016. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017; 14 (1):49. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0500-4 .

King R, Hooper B, Wood W. Using bibliographic software to appraise and code data in educational systematic review research. Med Teach. 2011;33(9):719–23. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159x.2011.558138 .

Koelemay MJ, Vermeulen H. Quick guide to systematic reviews and meta-analysis. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2016;51(2):309. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejvs.2015.11.010 .

Lucas PJ, Baird J, Arai L, Law C, Roberts HM. Worked examples of alternative methods for the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative research in systematic reviews. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2007;7:4–4. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-7-4 .

MacMillan F, Kirk A, Mutrie N, Matthews L, Robertson K, Saunders DH. A systematic review of physical activity and sedentary behavior intervention studies in youth with type 1 diabetes: study characteristics, intervention design, and efficacy. Pediatr Diabetes. 2014;15(3):175–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/pedi.12060 .

MacMillan F, Karamacoska D, El Masri A, McBride KA, Steiner GZ, Cook A, … George ES. A systematic review of health promotion intervention studies in the police force: study characteristics, intervention design and impacts on health. Occup Environ Med. 2017. https://doi.org/10.1136/oemed-2017-104430 .

Matthews L, Kirk A, MacMillan F, Mutrie N. Can physical activity interventions for adults with type 2 diabetes be translated into practice settings? A systematic review using the RE-AIM framework. Transl Behav Med. 2014;4(1):60–78. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13142-013-0235-y .

Moher D, Schulz KF, Altman DG. The CONSORT statement: revised recommendations for improving the quality of reports of parallel group randomized trials. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2001;1:2. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-1-2 .

Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. PLoS Med. 2009;6(7):e1000097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000097 .

Moher D, Shamseer L, Clarke M, Ghersi D, Liberati A, Petticrew M, et al. Preferred reporting items for systematic review and meta-analysis protocols (PRISMA-P) 2015 statement. Syst Rev. 2015;4:1. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-4053-4-1 .

Mulrow CD, Cook DJ, Davidoff F. Systematic reviews: critical links in the great chain of evidence. Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(5):389–91.

Peters MDJ. Managing and coding references for systematic reviews and scoping reviews in EndNote. Med Ref Serv Q. 2017;36(1):19–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/02763869.2017.1259891 .

Steiner GZ, Mathersul DC, MacMillan F, Camfield DA, Klupp NL, Seto SW, … Chang DH. A systematic review of intervention studies examining nutritional and herbal therapies for mild cognitive impairment and dementia using neuroimaging methods: study characteristics and intervention efficacy. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:21. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/6083629 .

Sterne JA, Hernán MA, Reeves BC, Savović J, Berkman ND, Viswanathan M, … Higgins JP. ROBINS-I: a tool for assessing risk of bias in non-randomised studies of interventions. BMJ. 2016;355. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4919 .

Tong A, Sainsbury P, Craig J. Consolidated criteria for reporting qualitative research (COREQ): a 32-item checklist for interviews and focus groups. Int J Qual Health Care. 2007;19(6):349–57. https://doi.org/10.1093/intqhc/mzm042 .

Tong A, Palmer S, Craig JC, Strippoli GFM. A guide to reading and using systematic reviews of qualitative research. Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2016;31(6):897–903. https://doi.org/10.1093/ndt/gfu354 .

Uman LS. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011;20(1):57–9.

Download references

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

School of Science and Health and Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia

Freya MacMillan

School of Medicine and Translational Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Kate A. McBride

School of Science and Health, Western Sydney University, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Emma S. George

NICM and Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia

Genevieve Z. Steiner

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Freya MacMillan .

Editor information

Editors and affiliations.

School of Science and Health, Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia

Pranee Liamputtong

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2019 Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.

About this entry

Cite this entry.

MacMillan, F., McBride, K.A., George, E.S., Steiner, G.Z. (2019). Conducting a Systematic Review: A Practical Guide. In: Liamputtong, P. (eds) Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5251-4_113

Download citation

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5251-4_113

Published : 13 January 2019

Publisher Name : Springer, Singapore

Print ISBN : 978-981-10-5250-7

Online ISBN : 978-981-10-5251-4

eBook Packages : Social Sciences Reference Module Humanities and Social Sciences Reference Module Business, Economics and Social Sciences

Share this entry

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Publish with us

Policies and ethics

  • Find a journal
  • Track your research

Jump to navigation


Cochrane Training

Chapter 1: starting a review.

Toby J Lasserson, James Thomas, Julian PT Higgins

Key Points:

  • Systematic reviews address a need for health decision makers to be able to access high quality, relevant, accessible and up-to-date information.
  • Systematic reviews aim to minimize bias through the use of pre-specified research questions and methods that are documented in protocols, and by basing their findings on reliable research.
  • Systematic reviews should be conducted by a team that includes domain expertise and methodological expertise, who are free of potential conflicts of interest.
  • People who might make – or be affected by – decisions around the use of interventions should be involved in important decisions about the review.
  • Good data management, project management and quality assurance mechanisms are essential for the completion of a successful systematic review.

Cite this chapter as: Lasserson TJ, Thomas J, Higgins JPT. Chapter 1: Starting a review. In: Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.4 (updated August 2023). Cochrane, 2023. Available from www.training.cochrane.org/handbook .

1.1 Why do a systematic review?

Systematic reviews were developed out of a need to ensure that decisions affecting people’s lives can be informed by an up-to-date and complete understanding of the relevant research evidence. With the volume of research literature growing at an ever-increasing rate, it is impossible for individual decision makers to assess this vast quantity of primary research to enable them to make the most appropriate healthcare decisions that do more good than harm. By systematically assessing this primary research, systematic reviews aim to provide an up-to-date summary of the state of research knowledge on an intervention, diagnostic test, prognostic factor or other health or healthcare topic. Systematic reviews address the main problem with ad hoc searching and selection of research, namely that of bias. Just as primary research studies use methods to avoid bias, so should summaries and syntheses of that research.

A systematic review attempts to collate all the 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 et al 1992, Oxman and Guyatt 1993). Systematic review methodology, pioneered and developed by Cochrane, sets out a highly structured, transparent and reproducible methodology (Chandler and Hopewell 2013). This involves: the a priori specification of a research question; clarity on the scope of the review and which studies are eligible for inclusion; making every effort to find all relevant research and to ensure that issues of bias in included studies are accounted for; and analysing the included studies in order to draw conclusions based on all the identified research in an impartial and objective way.

This Handbook is about systematic reviews on the effects of interventions, and specifically about methods used by Cochrane to undertake them. Cochrane Reviews use primary research to generate new knowledge about the effects of an intervention (or interventions) used in clinical, public health or policy settings. They aim to provide users with a balanced summary of the potential benefits and harms of interventions and give an indication of how certain they can be of the findings. They can also compare the effectiveness of different interventions with one another and so help users to choose the most appropriate intervention in particular situations. The primary purpose of Cochrane Reviews is therefore to inform people making decisions about health or health care.

Systematic reviews are important for other reasons. New research should be designed or commissioned only if it does not unnecessarily duplicate existing research (Chalmers et al 2014). Therefore, a systematic review should typically be undertaken before embarking on new primary research. Such a review will identify current and ongoing studies, as well as indicate where specific gaps in knowledge exist, or evidence is lacking; for example, where existing studies have not used outcomes that are important to users of research (Macleod et al 2014). A systematic review may also reveal limitations in the conduct of previous studies that might be addressed in the new study or studies.

Systematic reviews are important, often rewarding and, at times, exciting research projects. They offer the opportunity for authors to make authoritative statements about the extent of human knowledge in important areas and to identify priorities for further research. They sometimes cover issues high on the political agenda and receive attention from the media. Conducting research with these impacts is not without its challenges, however, and completing a high-quality systematic review is often demanding and time-consuming. In this chapter we introduce some of the key considerations for potential review authors who are about to start a systematic review.

1.2 What is the review question?

Getting the research question right is critical for the success of a systematic review. Review authors should ensure that the review addresses an important question to those who are expected to use and act upon its conclusions.

We discuss the formulation of questions in detail in Chapter 2 . For a question about the effects of an intervention, the PICO approach is usually used, which is an acronym for Population, Intervention, Comparison(s) and Outcome. Reviews may have additional questions, for example about how interventions were implemented, economic issues, equity issues or patient experience.

To ensure that the review addresses a relevant question in a way that benefits users, it is important to ensure wide input. In most cases, question formulation should therefore be informed by people with various relevant – but potentially different – perspectives (see Chapter 2, Section 2.4 ).

1.3 Who should do a systematic review?

Systematic reviews should be undertaken by a team. Indeed, Cochrane will not publish a review that is proposed to be undertaken by a single person. Working as a team not only spreads the effort, but ensures that tasks such as the selection of studies for eligibility, data extraction and rating the certainty of the evidence will be performed by at least two people independently, minimizing the likelihood of errors. First-time review authors are encouraged to work with others who are experienced in the process of systematic reviews and to attend relevant training.

Review teams must include expertise in the topic area under review. Topic expertise should not be overly narrow, to ensure that all relevant perspectives are considered. Perspectives from different disciplines can help to avoid assumptions or terminology stemming from an over-reliance on a single discipline. Review teams should also include expertise in systematic review methodology, including statistical expertise.

Arguments have been made that methodological expertise is sufficient to perform a review, and that content expertise should be avoided because of the risk of preconceptions about the effects of interventions (Gøtzsche and Ioannidis 2012). However, it is important that both topic and methodological expertise is present to ensure a good mix of skills, knowledge and objectivity, because topic expertise provides important insight into the implementation of the intervention(s), the nature of the condition being treated or prevented, the relationships between outcomes measured, and other factors that may have an impact on decision making.

A Cochrane Review should represent an independent assessment of the evidence and avoiding financial and non-financial conflicts of interest often requires careful management. It will be important to consider if there are any relevant interests that may constitute a conflict of interest. There are situations where employment, holding of patents and other financial support should prevent people joining an author team. Funding of Cochrane Reviews by commercial organizations with an interest in the outcome of the review is not permitted. To ensure that any issues are identified early in the process, authors planning Cochrane Reviews should consult the Conflict of Interest Policy . Authors should make complete declarations of interest before registration of the review, and refresh these annually thereafter until publication and just prior to publication of the protocol and the review. For authors of review updates, this must be done at the time of the decision to update the review, annually thereafter until publication, and just prior to publication. Authors should also update declarations of interest at any point when their circumstances change.

1.3.1 Involving consumers and other stakeholders

Because the priorities of decision makers and consumers may be different from those of researchers, it is important that review authors consider carefully what questions are important to these different stakeholders. Systematic reviews are more likely to be relevant to a broad range of end users if they are informed by the involvement of people with a range of experiences, in terms of both the topic and the methodology (Thomas et al 2004, Rees and Oliver 2017). Engaging consumers and other stakeholders, such as policy makers, research funders and healthcare professionals, increases relevance, promotes mutual learning, improved uptake and decreases research waste.

Mapping out all potential stakeholders specific to the review question is a helpful first step to considering who might be invited to be involved in a review. Stakeholders typically include: patients and consumers; consumer advocates; policy makers and other public officials; guideline developers; professional organizations; researchers; funders of health services and research; healthcare practitioners, and, on occasion, journalists and other media professionals. Balancing seniority, credibility within the given field, and diversity should be considered. Review authors should also take account of the needs of resource-poor countries and regions in the review process (see Chapter 16 ) and invite appropriate input on the scope of the review and the questions it will address.

It is established good practice to ensure that consumers are involved and engaged in health research, including systematic reviews. Cochrane uses the term ‘consumers’ to refer to a wide range of people, including patients or people with personal experience of a healthcare condition, carers and family members, representatives of patients and carers, service users and members of the public. In 2017, a Statement of Principles for consumer involvement in Cochrane was agreed. This seeks to change the culture of research practice to one where both consumers and other stakeholders are joint partners in research from planning, conduct, and reporting to dissemination. Systematic reviews that have had consumer involvement should be more directly applicable to decision makers than those that have not (see online Chapter II ).

1.3.2 Working with consumers and other stakeholders

Methods for working with consumers and other stakeholders include surveys, workshops, focus groups and involvement in advisory groups. Decisions about what methods to use will typically be based on resource availability, but review teams should be aware of the merits and limitations of such methods. Authors will need to decide who to involve and how to provide adequate support for their involvement. This can include financial reimbursement, the provision of training, and stating clearly expectations of involvement, possibly in the form of terms of reference.

While a small number of consumers or other stakeholders may be part of the review team and become co-authors of the subsequent review, it is sometimes important to bring in a wider range of perspectives and to recognize that not everyone has the capacity or interest in becoming an author. Advisory groups offer a convenient approach to involving consumers and other relevant stakeholders, especially for topics in which opinions differ. Important points to ensure successful involvement include the following.

  • The review team should co-ordinate the input of the advisory group to inform key review decisions.
  • The advisory group’s input should continue throughout the systematic review process to ensure relevance of the review to end users is maintained.
  • Advisory group membership should reflect the breadth of the review question, and consideration should be given to involving vulnerable and marginalized people (Steel 2004) to ensure that conclusions on the value of the interventions are well-informed and applicable to all groups in society (see Chapter 16 ).

Templates such as terms of reference, job descriptions, or person specifications for an advisory group help to ensure clarity about the task(s) required and are available from INVOLVE . The website also gives further information on setting and organizing advisory groups. See also the Cochrane training website for further resources to support consumer involvement.

1.4 The importance of reliability

Systematic reviews aim to be an accurate representation of the current state of knowledge about a given issue. As understanding improves, the review can be updated. Nevertheless, it is important that the review itself is accurate at the time of publication. There are two main reasons for this imperative for accuracy. First, health decisions that affect people’s lives are increasingly taken based on systematic review findings. Current knowledge may be imperfect, but decisions will be better informed when taken in the light of the best of current knowledge. Second, systematic reviews form a critical component of legal and regulatory frameworks; for example, drug licensing or insurance coverage. Here, systematic reviews also need to hold up as auditable processes for legal examination. As systematic reviews need to be both correct, and be seen to be correct, detailed evidence-based methods have been developed to guide review authors as to the most appropriate procedures to follow, and what information to include in their reports to aid auditability.

1.4.1 Expectations for the conduct and reporting of Cochrane Reviews

Cochrane has developed methodological expectations for the conduct, reporting and updating of systematic reviews of interventions (MECIR) and their plain language summaries ( Plain Language Expectations for Authors of Cochrane Summaries ; PLEACS). Developed collaboratively by methodologists and Cochrane editors, they are intended to describe the desirable attributes of a Cochrane Review. The expectations are not all relevant at the same stage of review conduct, so care should be taken to identify those that are relevant at specific points during the review. Different methods should be used at different stages of the review in terms of the planning, conduct, reporting and updating of the review.

Each expectation has a title, a rationale and an elaboration. For the purposes of publication of a review with Cochrane, each has the status of either ‘mandatory’ or ‘highly desirable’. Items described as mandatory are expected to be applied, and if they are not then an appropriate justification should be provided; failure to implement such items may be used as a basis for deciding not to publish a review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR). Items described as highly desirable should generally be implemented, but there are reasonable exceptions and justifications are not required.

All MECIR expectations for the conduct of a review are presented in the relevant chapters of this Handbook . Expectations for reporting of completed reviews (including PLEACS) are described in online Chapter III . The recommendations provided in the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) Statement have been incorporated into the Cochrane reporting expectations, ensuring compliance with the PRISMA recommendations and summarizing attributes of reporting that should allow a full assessment of the methods and findings of the review (Moher et al 2009).

1.5 Protocol development

Preparing a systematic review is complex and involves many judgements. To minimize the potential for bias in the review process, these judgements should be made as far as possible in ways that do not depend on the findings of the studies included in the review. Review authors’ prior knowledge of the evidence may, for example, influence the definition of a systematic review question, the choice of criteria for study eligibility, or the pre-specification of intervention comparisons and outcomes to analyse. It is important that the methods to be used should be established and documented in advance (see MECIR Box 1.5.a , MECIR Box 1.5.b and MECIR Box 1.5.c ).

Publication of a protocol for a review that is written without knowledge of the available studies reduces the impact of review authors’ biases, promotes transparency of methods and processes, reduces the potential for duplication, allows peer review of the planned methods before they have been completed, and offers an opportunity for the review team to plan resources and logistics for undertaking the review itself. All chapters in the Handbook should be consulted when drafting the protocol. Since systematic reviews are by their nature retrospective, an element of knowledge of the evidence is often inevitable. This is one reason why non-content experts such as methodologists should be part of the review team (see Section 1.3 ). Two exceptions to the retrospective nature of a systematic review are a meta-analysis of a prospectively planned series of trials and some living systematic reviews, as described in Chapter 22 .

The review question should determine the methods used in the review, and not vice versa. The question may concern a relatively straightforward comparison of one treatment with another; or it may necessitate plans to compare different treatments as part of a network meta-analysis, or assess differential effects of an intervention in different populations or delivered in different ways.

The protocol sets out the context in which the review is being conducted. It presents an opportunity to develop ideas that are foundational for the review. This concerns, most explicitly, definition of the eligibility criteria such as the study participants and the choice of comparators and outcomes. The eligibility criteria may also be defined following the development of a logic model (or an articulation of the aspects of an extent logic model that the review is addressing) to explain how the intervention might work (see Chapter 2, Section 2.5.1 ).

MECIR Box 1.5.a Relevant expectations for conduct of intervention reviews

A key purpose of the protocol is to make plans to minimize bias in the eventual findings of the review. Reliable synthesis of available evidence requires a planned, systematic approach. Threats to the validity of systematic reviews can come from the studies they include or the process by which reviews are conducted. Biases within the studies can arise from the method by which participants are allocated to the intervention groups, awareness of intervention group assignment, and the collection, analysis and reporting of data. Methods for examining these issues should be specified in the protocol. Review processes can generate bias through a failure to identify an unbiased (and preferably complete) set of studies, and poor quality assurance throughout the review. The availability of research may be influenced by the nature of the results (i.e. reporting bias). To reduce the impact of this form of bias, searching may need to include unpublished sources of evidence (Dwan et al 2013) ( MECIR Box 1.5.b ).

MECIR Box 1.5.b Relevant expectations for the conduct of intervention reviews

Developing a protocol for a systematic review has benefits beyond reducing bias. Investing effort in designing a systematic review will make the process more manageable and help to inform key priorities for the review. Defining the question, referring to it throughout, and using appropriate methods to address the question focuses the analysis and reporting, ensuring the review is most likely to inform treatment decisions for funders, policy makers, healthcare professionals and consumers. Details of the planned analyses, including investigations of variability across studies, should be specified in the protocol, along with methods for interpreting the results through the systematic consideration of factors that affect confidence in estimates of intervention effect ( MECIR Box 1.5.c ).

MECIR Box 1.5.c Relevant expectations for conduct of intervention reviews

While the intention should be that a review will adhere to the published protocol, changes in a review protocol are sometimes necessary. This is also the case for a protocol for a randomized trial, which must sometimes be changed to adapt to unanticipated circumstances such as problems with participant recruitment, data collection or event rates. While every effort should be made to adhere to a predetermined protocol, this is not always possible or appropriate. It is important, however, that changes in the protocol should not be made based on how they affect the outcome of the research study, whether it is a randomized trial or a systematic review. Post hoc decisions made when the impact on the results of the research is known, such as excluding selected studies from a systematic review, or changing the statistical analysis, are highly susceptible to bias and should therefore be avoided unless there are reasonable grounds for doing this.

Enabling access to a protocol through publication (all Cochrane Protocols are published in the CDSR ) and registration on the PROSPERO register of systematic reviews reduces duplication of effort, research waste, and promotes accountability. Changes to the methods outlined in the protocol should be transparently declared.

This Handbook provides details of the systematic review methods developed or selected by Cochrane. They are intended to address the need for rigour, comprehensiveness and transparency in preparing a Cochrane systematic review. All relevant chapters – including those describing procedures to be followed in the later stages of the review – should be consulted during the preparation of the protocol. A more specific description of the structure of Cochrane Protocols is provide in online Chapter II .

1.6 Data management and quality assurance

Systematic reviews should be replicable, and retaining a record of the inclusion decisions, data collection, transformations or adjustment of data will help to establish a secure and retrievable audit trail. They can be operationally complex projects, often involving large research teams operating in different sites across the world. Good data management processes are essential to ensure that data are not inadvertently lost, facilitating the identification and correction of errors and supporting future efforts to update and maintain the review. Transparent reporting of review decisions enables readers to assess the reliability of the review for themselves.

Review management software, such as Covidence and EPPI-Reviewer , can be used to assist data management and maintain consistent and standardized records of decisions made throughout the review. These tools offer a central repository for review data that can be accessed remotely throughout the world by members of the review team. They record independent assessment of studies for inclusion, risk of bias and extraction of data, enabling checks to be made later in the process if needed. Research has shown that even experienced reviewers make mistakes and disagree with one another on risk-of-bias assessments, so it is particularly important to maintain quality assurance here, despite its cost in terms of author time. As more sophisticated information technology tools begin to be deployed in reviews (see Chapter 4, Section and Chapter 22, Section 22.2.4 ), it is increasingly apparent that all review data – including the initial decisions about study eligibility – have value beyond the scope of the individual review. For example, review updates can be made more efficient through (semi-) automation when data from the original review are available for machine learning.

1.7 Chapter information

Authors: Toby J Lasserson, James Thomas, Julian PT Higgins

Acknowledgements: This chapter builds on earlier versions of the Handbook . We would like to thank Ruth Foxlee, Richard Morley, Soumyadeep Bhaumik, Mona Nasser, Dan Fox and Sally Crowe for their contributions to Section 1.3 .

Funding: JT is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care North Thames at Barts Health NHS Trust. JPTH is a member of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. JPTH received funding from National Institute for Health Research Senior Investigator award NF-SI-0617-10145. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.

1.8 References

Antman E, Lau J, Kupelnick B, Mosteller F, Chalmers T. A comparison of results of meta-analyses of randomized control trials and recommendations of clinical experts: treatment for myocardial infarction. JAMA 1992; 268 : 240–248.

Chalmers I, Bracken MB, Djulbegovic B, Garattini S, Grant J, Gulmezoglu AM, Howells DW, Ioannidis JP, Oliver S. How to increase value and reduce waste when research priorities are set. Lancet 2014; 383 : 156–165.

Chandler J, Hopewell S. Cochrane methods – twenty years experience in developing systematic review methods. Systematic Reviews 2013; 2 : 76.

Dwan K, Gamble C, Williamson PR, Kirkham JJ, Reporting Bias Group. Systematic review of the empirical evidence of study publication bias and outcome reporting bias: an updated review. PloS One 2013; 8 : e66844.

Gøtzsche PC, Ioannidis JPA. Content area experts as authors: helpful or harmful for systematic reviews and meta-analyses? BMJ 2012; 345 .

Macleod MR, Michie S, Roberts I, Dirnagl U, Chalmers I, Ioannidis JP, Al-Shahi Salman R, Chan AW, Glasziou P. Biomedical research: increasing value, reducing waste. Lancet 2014; 383 : 101–104.

Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman D, PRISMA Group. Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. PLoS Medicine 2009; 6 : e1000097.

Oxman A, Guyatt G. The science of reviewing research. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1993; 703 : 125–133.

Rees R, Oliver S. Stakeholder perspectives and participation in reviews. In: Gough D, Oliver S, Thomas J, editors. An Introduction to Systematic Reviews . 2nd ed. London: Sage; 2017. p. 17–34.

Steel R. Involving marginalised and vulnerable people in research: a consultation document (2nd revision). INVOLVE; 2004.

Thomas J, Harden A, Oakley A, Oliver S, Sutcliffe K, Rees R, Brunton G, Kavanagh J. Integrating qualitative research with trials in systematic reviews. BMJ 2004; 328 : 1010–1012.

For permission to re-use material from the Handbook (either academic or commercial), please see here for full details.


  1. A Step by Step Guide for Conducting a Systematic Review

    writing a systematic review

  2. (PDF) How to Write a Systematic Review

    writing a systematic review

  3. Systematic reviews

    writing a systematic review

  4. Figure 1 from How to Write a Systematic Review : A Step-by-Step Guide

    writing a systematic review

  5. How to Conduct a Systematic Review

    writing a systematic review

  6. An Introduction to Writing a Systematic Review

    writing a systematic review


  1. Writing Systematic Literature Review papers

  2. Rudiments Of Writing Systematic Review Article By Dr. Ibukunoluwa Olawuyi

  3. Systematic Writing Instruction is Key

  4. Best practices in managing systematic reviews, and writing systematic review articles

  5. Research Evidence Grading

  6. Systematic Reviews In Research Universe


  1. Systematic Review | Definition, Example & Guide - Scribbr

    A systematic review is a type of review that uses repeatable methods to find, select, and synthesize all available evidence. It answers a clearly formulated research question and explicitly states the methods used to arrive at the answer. Example: Systematic review. In 2008, Dr. Robert Boyle and his colleagues published a systematic review in ...

  2. How to Do a Systematic Review: A Best Practice Guide for ...

    The best reviews synthesize studies to draw broad theoretical conclusions about what a literature means, linking theory to evidence and evidence to theory. This guide describes how to plan, conduct, organize, and present a systematic review of quantitative (meta-analysis) or qualitative (narrative review, meta-synthesis) information.

  3. How to Write a Systematic Review: A Step-by-Step Guide - UPOJ

    In detail, the mnemonic refers to the following: 1. Population:34 Define your subject group. Think about the age, sex, race and other patient characteristics, as well as relevant co-morbidities, pathology, and outcomes. 2. Intervention: Consider the prognostic factor or exposure (includes intervention) of interest.

  4. How to write a systematic review - PubMed

    The steps necessary to perform a systematic review are fully explained, including the study purpose, search methodology, data extraction, reporting of results, identification of bias, and reporting of the study's main findings. Conclusion: Systematic reviews or meta-analyses critically appraise and formally synthesize the best existing evidence ...

  5. Steps of a Systematic Review - Systematic Review - Research ...

    Steps to conducting a systematic review. Quick overview of the process: Steps and resources from the UMB HSHSL Guide. YouTube video (26 min) Another detailed guide on how to conduct and write a systematic review from RMIT University; A roadmap for searching literature in PubMed from the VU Amsterdam; Alexander, P. A. (2020).

  6. How to Write a Systematic Review: A Narrative Review - PMC

    Writing a research question is the first step in systematic review that summarizes the main goal of the study. The research question determines which types of studies should be included in the analysis (quantitative, qualitative, methodic mix, review overviews, or other studies).

  7. How to write a systematic literature review: a guide for ...

    Systematic review allows the assessment of primary study quality, identifying the weaknesses in current experimental efforts and guiding the methodology of future research. Choosing the features of study design to review and critique is dependent on the subject and design of the literature identified.

  8. Systematic Reviews: Step 8: Write the Review - LibGuides

    Documenting grey literature and/or hand searches. If you have also searched additional sources, such as professional organization websites, cited or citing references, etc., document your grey literature search using the flow diagram template version 1 PRISMA 2020 flow diagram for new systematic reviews which included searches of databases, registers and other sources or the version 2 PRISMA ...

  9. Conducting a Systematic Review: A Practical Guide - Springer

    Abstract. It can be challenging to conduct a systematic review with limited experience and skills in undertaking such a task. This chapter provides a practical guide to undertaking a systematic review, providing step-by-step instructions to guide the individual through the process from start to finish. The chapter begins with defining what a ...

  10. Chapter 1: Starting a review | Cochrane Training

    Review teams should also include expertise in systematic review methodology, including statistical expertise. Arguments have been made that methodological expertise is sufficient to perform a review, and that content expertise should be avoided because of the risk of preconceptions about the effects of interventions (Gøtzsche and Ioannidis 2012).