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Research Guides

Systematic Literature Reviews

This guide provides tips and strategies for conducting a systematic literature review.

About This Guide

This guide provides an overview of the processes involved in finding and managing information sources for use in systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

What are Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses?

The following comes from section 1.2.2 of the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, Version 5.1.0.

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 (Antman 1992, Oxman 1993). The key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies;
  • an explicit, reproducible methodology;
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria;
  • an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias; and
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies.

Many systematic reviews contain meta-analyses. Meta-analysis is the use of statistical methods to summarize the results of independent studies (Glass 1976). By combining information from all relevant studies, meta-analyses can provide more precise estimates of the effects of health care than those derived from the individual studies included within a review (see Chapter 9, Section 9.1.3). They also facilitate investigations of the consistency of evidence across studies, and the exploration of differences across studies.

Before You Begin

A systematic review is a major commitment.

  • Expect the systematic review or meta-analysis to take lots of time
  • Plan everything out before starting
  • Learn the necessary tools, including (but not limited to) ...
    • Databases to find the relevant publications
    • Citation management tools such as EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero
    • Systematic reviews software such as Rayyan (free) or Covidence (fee-based)
  • Make sure that everyone knows who is responsible for backing-up files, etc.

Cornell University Library's "What Type of Review Is Right for You?" can help you think through whether or not to embark on a systematic review or meta-analysis.