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Systematic Reviews: Home

A guide to the methodology of and resources for Systematic Reviews

What is a Systematic Review?

According to the Cochrane Handbook, a systematic review "attempts to collate all 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".

  • Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from www.handbook.cochrane.org.


Is a systematic review a thorough or robust literature review?

No! A systematic review has different steps in its methodology than a literature or narrative review does. A systematic review is also considered a type of primary research whereas a traditional literature or narrative review article is not. 

There are many different review types being published in scholarly literature. Scroll down to see more information about different review types to determine which is the best fit for you.


What does a systematic review contain?

According to the Cochrane Handbook, a systematic review should contain: 

1. a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;

2. an explicit, reproducible methodology;

3. a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria;

4. an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and

5. a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Each of these items represents a complex and important piece of a systematic review. For more information about completing these steps, please see the recommended additional readings and/or reach out to one of our librarians. 

  • Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from www.handbook.cochrane.org.

Other Types of Reviews

Systematic reviews are a very intensive review type typically requiring between 6 and 18 months to complete, depending on the scope of the project. A few other types of reviews that may be better suited for your project and/or timeline are listed below: 

Literature Review: This is a traditional review article, sometimes known as a narrative review.

  • "Generic term: published materials that provide examination of recent or current literature. Can cover wide range of subjects at various levels of completeness and comprehensiveness. May include research findings
    Map" (Grant, 2009)

Rapid Review: A rapid review follows the systematic review format but with a less intensive search process requiring. 

  • "Assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, by using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research" (Grant, 2009)

Scoping Review: A scoping review is a broader review to determine a general idea of what has been published on a topic.

  • "Preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature. Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually including ongoing research)" (Grant, 2009)

Umbrella Review: Commonly defined as a 'systematic review of systematic reviews'. 

  • "Specifically refers to review compiling evidence from multiple reviews into one accessible and usable document. Focuses on broad condition or problem for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address these interventions and their results" (Grant, 2009)

Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91–108. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.xnt

Additional Reading on Systematic Reviews and Other Review Types

Recommended Books on Systematic Reviews:

Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions

  • Higgins JPT, Green S (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from www.handbook.cochrane.org.

Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews

  • Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Standards for Systematic Reviews of Comparative Effectiveness Research; Eden J, Levit L, Berg A, et al., editors. Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209518/ doi: 10.17226/13059

Articles on Different Types of Reviews:

A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies

  • Grant, M. J., & Booth, A. (2009). A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 26(2), 91–108. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.xnt

Evidence Summaries: The Evolution of a Rapid Review Approach 

  • Khangura, Sara, Kristin Konnyu, Rob Cushman, Jeremy Grimshaw, and David Moher. (2012). Evidence Summaries: The Evolution of a Rapid Review Approach. Systematic Reviews, 1(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-4053-1-10.

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