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Systematic Reviews: Overview

Information on how to conduct systematic reviews in the health sciences.

What Is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review is a comprehensive literature search that tries to answer a well-defined question (often using the PICO model) & uses existing research as evidence. A protocol is used to determine what is & is not included in the search. Systematic reviews are often used as the foundation for a meta analysis (a statistical process that combines the findings from individual studies) & to re-evaluate clinical guidelines.

The Informationist's Role in the Systematic Review

"Work with a librarian or other information specialist trained in performing systematic reviews to plan the search strategy." (Institute of Medicine, Standards for Systematic Reviews, 3.1.1)

If you are thinking about or working on a systematic review, the informationists of the Taubman Health Sciences Library can helpWe can:

  • Identify search terms
  • Create comprehensive search strategies
  • Choose the right databases & resources
  • Assist in finding relevant articles
  • Organize search results using citation management software
  • Write the methodology section of the review.

Please contact us for more information about how we can collaborate with you & your team.

Do I Need a Systematic Review?

It is important to know if what you need is actually a systematic review.  Consider the following questions before you begin.


Graphic:  Systematic Review Process 


Is your question specific and clearly defined?  Because your research question determines the search strategy, inclusion & exclusion criteria, & data that you extract from the selected studies, your question should be specific and clearly defined first to ensure scientific rigor and transparency. Focused questions often specify population, disease or problem, intervention or exposure, & outcome.

Do you have a protocol to develop the search methodology for a rigorous & systematic search?  A protocol identifies the steps in the process, beginning with why the search needs to be done and including inclusion & exclusion criteria, limits, &  more. The University of Warwick has created a helpful methodology template.

Do you have a team to work on the review?  A team composed of 1) subject experts; 2) two or more literature reviewers; 3) an informationist/librarian; & 4) a statistician provide sufficient expertise for each step of the systematic review process. They will work together to:

  • Identify potentially relevant studies through search strategies
  • Select studies based on explicit inclusion & exclusion criteria
  • Critically appraise the included studies
  • Analyze & interpret the results
  • Disseminate the results through publication

Will you use good data extraction and management techniques? At least two researchers should be involved in the data extraction process to reduce errors. 

Do you have the time that it takes to properly conduct a systematic review?  It is not unusual for this type of review to take 18-24 months.

Do you have a method for discerning bias?  There are many types of bias, including selection, performance, & reporting bias, and assessing the risk of bias of individual studies is an important part of your study design.

Can you afford to have articles in languages other than English translated?  You should include all relevant studies in your systematic review, regardless of the language they were published in, so as to avoid language bias


Your research question, timeline, or resources may be better suited for another type of review. For more information on review types, see the Types of Reviews page of this guide.


Recommendations adapted from:
Institute of Medicine. (2011). Finding what works in health care: standards for systematic reviews. Eden, J. Levit, L., Berg, A., & Morton, S. (Eds.) Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

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Taubman Health Sciences Library
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Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2038
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