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Systematic Review Process: best practices


This research guide provides resources for conducting a systematic review of the literature.  Performing a high quality electronic search of information resources ensures the accuracy and completeness of the evidence base used in your review.  In contrast to a conventional literature review, a systematic review (SR) is transparent, verifiable, and reproducible, and, as a result, the likelihood of bias is considerably smaller. 

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.  

Have a look at this systematic review roadmap from SAGE, which includes videos, presentations, podcasts, resources and more. 

Get to know Systematic Literature Review

Rapid and less rigourous reviews also fill an evidence need and have advantages in terms of turnaround time and accessibility.  The most common literature reviews are:

Meta - analysis

  • A subset of systematic reviews
  • Uses statistical methods to objectively evaluate, synthesize, and summarize results.

Umbrella Review

  • Reviews other systematic reviews on a topic

  • Often defines a broader question than is typical of a traditional systematic review

  • This type of review is most useful when there are competing interventions to consider

Systematic review

  • A summary of the clinical literature

  • An organized method of locating, assembling, and evaluating a body of literature on a particular topic using a set of specific criteria

Rapid Review

  • Assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, using systematic review methods

  • Much quicker timeframe

  • Used for time constrained  projects

Literature (Narrative) Review

  • A broad term referring to reviews with a wide scope and non-standardized methodology. 

  • Search strategies, comprehensiveness, and time range covered will vary and do not follow an established protocol.

Scoping Review

  • Addresses a broader research question or set of questions

  • Often conducted in preparation for conducting a systematic review

  • Seeks to identify research gaps and opportunities for evidence synthesis

What Makes a Systematic Review Different from Other Types of Reviews? 

  • Check this comprehensive table that explains in detail different review types and creates a comparative analysis.

It’s common to confuse systematic and literature reviews because both are used to provide a summary of the existent literature or research on a specific topic.  Literature review represents the reading and evaluation of research already carried out and published to discuss a certain subject.  Systematic review seeks to collect quantitative data on research already carried out in a given area following a step-by-step process, not necessarily having to discuss these researches.

What's in a name? The difference between a Systematic Review and a Literature Review, and why it matters

by Lynn Kysh, MLIS, University of Southern California - Norris Medical Library


Steps to follow:

  1. Identify your research question
  2. Define inclusion and exclusion criteria
  3. Search for studies
  4. Select studies for inclusion based on pre-defined criteria
  5. Extract data from included studies
  6. Evaluate the risk of bias of included studies
  7. Present results and assess the quality of evidence
  8. Find the best journal to publish your work


  • A proper systematic review requires sufficient time
  • A systematic review can't be done alone! You need to work with subject experts to clarify issues related to the topic and receive guidance and support to format your search strategy and select appropriate resources
  • You can't start without having identified key concepts of the question
  • You need to write a protocol outlining the study methodology and register it with a review registry
  • You need to use a reference management tool to manage citations and extract results - EndNote can be the best choice