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Systematic Reviews: Home

A guide to conducting systematic reviews.

Steps in the Process

The contents of the guide are organized as follows:

Librarians Can Help!

Reference librarians trained in the systematic review process are available to assist with planning and conducting a review. To set up an appointment for help with your systematic review, fill out request form.

The Institute of Medicine Standards for Systematic Reviews include the following requirement (Standard 3.1.1):

"Work with a librarian or other information specialist trained in performing systematic reviews to plan the search strategy"

The Methods Guide for Effectiveness and Comparative Effectiveness Reviews from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recommends that “[a] librarian or other expert searcher should be involved in the development of the search.”

What is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review "is a scientific investigation that focuses on a specific question and uses explicit, prespecified scientific methods to identify, select, assess, and summarize the findings of similar but separate studies."(1)

A meta-analysis, "sometimes misused as a synonym for systematic reviews",(2) is "a quantitative statistical analysis of several separate but similar experiments or studies in order to test the pooled data for statistical significance".(3)


1 Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews, Committee on Standards for Systematic Reviews of Comparative Effectiveness Research, Institute of Medicine. National Academies Press, June 2011.
2 Cochrane Collaboration Glossary (
3 Merriam-Webster (

What to think about when you're doing a systematic review


Requirements for doing a systematic review:

  • Have an answerable question. By definition, a systematic review addresses the effects or outcomes of specific interventions. Use PICO to formulate the question.

  •  Write a protocol that includes background (why this systematic review is needed), answerable question, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and methodology.

  • Establish a team to work on the review. Need at least two people to review studies in order to eliminate bias and a librarian to do the literature search. It's helpful if a third reviewer is available when there are disagreements over inclusion/exclusion of specific studies.

  • Allow enough time to go through the process. It can take more than a year, depending on the topic. Starting a review during your final year of medical school is not advisable.

  • A comprehensive search requires careful selection of search terms and involves searching several databases and other resources for published and unpublished studies. This is a time-consuming process, as it usually demands several revisions of search terms and strategies to arrive at the best and most comprehensive search.

  • The large number of search results will require ample time to review for inclusion/exclusion and appraise for quality. More time is needed to extract and analyze data and synthesize findings. Additional time is necessary for writing the final manuscript.  

Why Do A Systematic Review

From the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at York University:

Systematic reviews aim to identify, evaluate and summarise the findings of all relevant individual studies, thereby making the available evidence more accessible to decisionmakers. When appropriate, combining the results of several studies gives a more reliable and precise estimate of an intervention’s effectiveness than one study alone. Systematic reviews adhere to a strict scientific design based on explicit, pre-specified and reproducible methods. Because of this, when carried out well, they provide reliable estimates about the effects of interventions so that conclusions are defensible. As well as setting out what we know about a particular intervention, systematic reviews can also demonstrate where knowledge is lacking. This can then be used to guide future research.(1)

1 Systematic Reviews: CRD's Guidance for Undertaking Systematic Reviews in Health Care, Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York, 2009. (


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