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Systematic Reviews

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

Study Selection Guidance

The eligibility criteria (also referred to as inclusion and exclusion criteria) for your systematic review should be developed before you begin screening articles. The PRISMA-p Protocols extension and systematic review protocol templates include eligibility criteria among the methods to plan.

Best practices for study selection

  • Use explicit, pre-defined eligibility criteria to guide screening
  • Have two independent reviewers select eligible studies to reduce the risk of mistakes and personal biases

Related sections of the Cochrane Handbook

As you develop your protocol and methodology, the following sections of the online version of the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions provide detailed guidance on study selection:

Typical Screening and Selection Process

For most evidence synthesis projects, study selection will occur in two phases: title and abstract screening and full text review.

Title and Abstract Screening

Review the title and abstract for each record retrieved to determine whether it should be excluded based on the eligibility criteria. If the relevance is unclear from the title and abstract, it is best to move the record forward for full text review.

During title and abstract screening, reviewers will document their overall decision (for example, include in full text review, exclude from project, or maybe). The title and abstract screening form can also include sub-questions related to the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Responses to these prompts are useful reminders when discussing conflicts. 

Full Text Review

Retrieve and review the full text of all records advanced from the title and abstract screening process. Use the pre-defined eligibility criteria to select studies for inclusion in the review.

During full text review, document the overall decision and exclusion reason for each excluded study.

Systematic Review Tools

Systematic review tools have been designed to help streamline systematic review processes. The Systematic Review Toolbox catalogs available tools; the entry for each tool provides a description, supported processes, related papers, and basic costs (i.e., free vs. subscription required). Use the filters under "Advanced Search" to view tools that support specific systematic review processes. 

Popular tools with screening features include:

Select the best systematic review tool for your team by considering your team's needs and comparing features, usability, and costs of various tools.

Recent Tool Evaluations

  • Harrison H, Griffin SJ, Kuhn I, Usher-Smith JA. Software tools to support title and abstract screening for systematic reviews in healthcare: an evaluation. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2020;20(1):7. Published 2020 Jan 13. doi:10.1186/s12874-020-0897-3
  • Kohl C, McIntosh EJ, Unger S, Haddaway NR, Kecke S, Schiemann J, Wilhelm R. Online tools supporting the conduct and reporting of systematic reviews and systematic maps: a case study on CADIMA and review of existing tools. Environmental Evidence. 2018 Dec;7(1):1-7. doi:10.1186/s13750-018-0115-5