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Published by at March 31st, 2023 , Revised On December 8, 2023

What is a Systematic Review – Steps & Examples

Systematic reviews are a research synthesis involving specialised expertise concerning the research problem or questions, international evidence from authentic sources, and critical appraisal of the results obtained.”
A systemic review is a process with a pre-defined structure and steps. The researcher applies rigorous research methods to obtain and validate the results so the end users can rely upon them for future research. The implication of the results obtained through a systematic review applies to policy, approach, practice and further research.
One of the key objectives of a systematic review is to establish the authenticity, relevance and quality of the evidence material used. A systematic review also identifies and critically analyses the inconsistencies in practice and validates whether or not the existing practice is as per the evidence.
At the end of the systematic review process, the researcher identifies research deficiencies, gaps, and notable emerging themes in evidence and provides meaningful recommendations for future academic research.

What Does a Systematic Review Include?

The popularity of the systematic review has grown tremendously over the last several years because it results in more logical, concise, meaningful results and recommendations for the readers.
It is based on the following fundamental ideas:

What are the Steps of Conducting a Systematic Review?

A systematic review can be completed by implementing the following steps:

  1. Before you start, ensure the systematic review is the best choice and work out the sources and logistics required to conduct it.
  2. Check whether any existing systematic reviews answer the same research problem or questions. Modify or completely change the research question or idea if you find an existing review.
  3. Develop a clear and concise research question or problem after carefully considering several options and then focusing on one for specific results. 
  4. Establish and register the protocol. Indicate the research methodology, the eligibility criteria and the rationale.
  5. Formulate a clear search strategy. Find all the relevant sources that would enable you to answer the research question.
  6. Carry out a thorough search of the literature to collect evidence.
  7. Select the sources and critically appraise the quality of the studies included and methods for reporting.
  8. Retrieve relevant data from the sources and apply tested approaches to validate the evidence.
  9. Analyse and interpret the data and synthesise the results to answer your research problem or question.
  10. Write your systematic review and request your tutor to appraise it for improvement before publishing.

Comparing a Systematic Review with Other Types of Reviews

A systematic review is the most demanding and challenging literature review. It is mostly employed at the Master’s and PhD levels. It shares some similarities with narrative, rapid, scoping, and traditional narrative reviews.
A comprehensive comparison of the different literature review types is provided in the below tables:

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Systematic Review vs Traditional Literature Review

StagesSystematic ReviewTraditional Literature Review
QuestionA single clear and specific research questionMay not be focused on a single research question and may only provide an overview.
ProtocolPeer review planning and protocol are includedNo protocols are involved.
BackgroundGives an overview of the existing literatureGives an overview of the existing literature
ObjectivesClear objectives to addressObjectives may or may not be clearly defined
Inclusion/exclusionCriteria and protocols are decided before the reviewCriteria and protocols may not be established.
Search strategySysmetic and thorough research strategyThere is no specific search strategy
Protocols for selectionSysmetic and thorough research strategyThere is no specific search strategy
Process of source appraisalA critical appraisal of the sources is conductedAppraisal of the studies may or may not be included.
Results and data synthesisProvides summaries based on evidence qualityThe quality of the sources used for the review may not be specified. The author’s personal beliefs and opinions may be more prominent.
DiscussionCompleted by one or more experts with qualifications and expertise in the issues being investigatedCompleted by one or more experts with qualifications and expertise in the issues being investigated

Systematic Review vs Scoping Review

StagesSystematic ReviewScoping Review
The purposeAnswers a specified research question by finding, evaluating and synthesising all empirical evidence, which must be international and meet the eligibility criteriaIdentification of a research area, synthesising literature in that particular area to evaluate the quality of the evidence material
Reasons to chooseBy finding and evaluating the most authentic and relevant literature to address a given focused and specific questionDigs deep into the literature to find research gaps in the select area. Occasionally employed together with a systematic review
QuestionNarrow parameters for the research questionGenerally addresses a broad question
CriteriaYou must define the inclusion/exclusion before conducting the researchThe inclusion/exclusion criteria can be developed at any stage, even post hoc
EvaluationSophisticated and methodological evaluation and assessment for the selection of studiesThe process may or may not include the evaluation stage. Or it may be done in a narrative form.
SynthesisThe synthesis could be based on a meta-analysis. Summarises the studies to highlight the quality of the evidenceSynthesis and analysis is descriptive in nature
InferencesBased on the evidenceBased on the evidence

Systematic Review vs Rapid Review

StagesSystematic ReviewRapid Review
QuestionFocused and specific questionNarrow question which may not be based on PICOS
Sources and searchesRigorous search strategies to find the most comprehensive and authentic evidence and sourcesRigorous search strategies to find the most comprehensive and authentic
SelectionBased on the criteriaBased on the criteria
EvaluationCritical evaluationCritical evaluation
EvaluationSophisticated and methodological evaluation and assessment for the selection of studiesThe process may or may not include the evaluation stage. Or it may be done in a narrative form.
SynthesisSummary of the quality. Meta-analysis could also be appliedData is categorised with a descriptive summary
InferencesBased on the evidenceLimited evidence. Caution should be exercised when interpreting the results

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Frequently Asked Questions

A systematic review is a scholarly synthesis of the data on a well-described subject using analytical techniques to locate, describe, and rate relevant research.

A systematic review takes data from previously published research on the subject, analyses and interprets it, and then discusses, summarises, and draws a detailed conclusion.

No, there is a fine line between a scoping review and a systematic review. A scoping review will have a wider “scope” than a typical systematic review with correspondingly more expansive inclusion criteria. 

A systematic review can adopt either qualitative, quantitative or a combination of the two methodologies. The approach employed depends on the research question and the scope of the research. 

For a systematic review, you must search at least three databases; ideally, one huge database and two subject-specific ones. This technique applies to all forms of systematic reviews.

No, A systematic review complies with all the empirical research that is readily available to find answers to the research questions, while a meta-analysis is a statistical approach for assessing and integrating the data from several related research. 

About Owen Ingram

Avatar for Owen IngramIngram is a dissertation specialist. He has a master's degree in data sciences. His research work aims to compare the various types of research methods used among academicians and researchers.