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Systematic and Literature Reviews

Health Sciences Librarian

Erika Sevetson
Contact:
Health Sciences Librarian
Champlin Memorial Library
Alpert Medical School
222 Richmond St., rm 155

or mail:
Box G-M155, Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
(401) 863-5150
Website / Blog Page
What is a systematic review?
A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise, and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making. (See Section 1.2 in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions.)
Am I doing a systematic review?

The term systematic review is sometimes loosely used. Consider these questions: 

  • Do I have a clearly defined clinical question with established inclusion and exclusion criteria?
  • Do I have a team of at least three people assembled?
  • Do I have time to go through as many search results as we might find?
  • Do I have resources to get foreign language articles appropriately translated?
  • Do I have the statistical resources to analyze and pool data?

If you answered “No” to any of the first four questions, a traditional literature review will be more appropriate to do. If you answered “No” to the last question, a meta-analysis will not be an appropriate methodology for your review.

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.

Need help writing a protocol? See the University of Warwick's protocol template.

A registered protocol: After 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.

For more information about registering protocols & PROSPERO, see:
Best practices in systematic reviews: the importance of protocols & registration
An international registry of systematic review protocols

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 more information about the nuances of conducting systematic reviews, contact your Medical Librarian!