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Systematic Reviews

What is systematic review?

A systematic review is a critical assessment and evaluation of all research studies that address a particular clinical issue. The researchers use an organized method of locating, assembling, and evaluating a body of literature on a particular topic using a set of specific criteria. A systematic review typically includes a description of the findings of the collection of research studies. The systematic review may also include a quantitative pooling of data, called a meta-analysis. (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Glossary of Terms, 2014)

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.

(Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, 2008, p. 6)

Systematic reviews vs. Literature Review : Similarities & Differences


  Systematic review Literature review
Question Focused on a single  question.  Not necessarily focused on a single question, but may describe an overview.
Protocol  A peer review protocol or plan is included. No protocol is included.
Background Both provide summaries of the available literature on a topic
Objectives Clear objectives are identified. Objectives may or may not be identified.
Inclusion and exclusion criteria Criteria stated before the review is conducted. Criteria not specified.
Search strategy Comprehensive search conducted in a systematic way. Strategy not explicitly stated
Process of selecting articles Usually clear and explicit. Not described in a literature review.
Process of evaluating articles Comprehensive evaluation of study quality. Evaluation of study quality may or may not be included.
Process of extracting relevant information Usually clear and specific. The process of extracting relevant information is not explicit and clear.
Results and data synthesis Clear summaries of studies based on high quality evidence. Summary based on studies where the quality of articles may not be specified. May also be influenced by the reviewer’s theories, needs and beliefs.
Discussion Written by an expert or group of experts with a detailed and well grounded knowledge of the issues.

 Reproduced from: Bettany-Saltikov, J. (2010). Learning how to undertake a systematic review: Part 1. Nursing Standard, 24(40): 47-55.

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