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Systematic Reviews in the Sciences & Health Sciences

What's in this Guide

This guide is primarily for students conducting systematic reviews for thesis/dissertation or course work.

This guide will teach you to:

  1. Break research questions into searchable concepts
  2. Determine which databases to search, and why
  3. Understand what search filters are and where to find them
  4. Use grey literature to complement your search
  5. Document and store the material you find

This guide also provides basic information on how to conduct your search; for more in-depth help, book a research consultation with a Gerstein librarian.

What Are Systematic Reviews?

“A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making.”

- Cochrane Library, About Cochrane Systematic Reviews and Protocols

“Library books,” CCAC North Library

Systematic Reviews are comprehensive analyses of all the scientific research on a specific question. They answer the question: what does the evidence say about this medical issue?

Systematic reviews are crucial to medical practice and research. They are a valuable resource for clinicians deciding on treatments, and they also reveal gaps in current research.

A systematic review is not the same as a narrative review or a literature review. Unlike other kinds of reviews, systematic ones must be as thorough and unbiased as possible, and must also make explicit how the search was conducted.

“Research - IMG_1367,” Nicola 

A true systematic review:

  • Is produced by at least two people
  • Usually takes between 9 and 12 months
  • Involves rigorous checks for thoroughness and bias

If you are a student, you're probably not conducting a systematic review in the true sense, but are working on a systematic review-like project.


Evidence-Based Medicine: Careful use of established best practice within medicine. Systematic reviews as a practice fall under EBM. Check out this What Is Evidence-Based Medicine guide.

Grey Literature: Any literature that is not published in the traditional sense. See the page in this guide.

Meta-analysis: Statistical analysis of data that has been collected in a systematic review. Not all systematic reviews include meta-analysis, but all meta-analyses are found in systematic reviews.

Protocols: Plans for future systematic reviews. Protocols describe the research question and the intended search process.

Search Filters: Pre-built sets of search terms designed to collect all relevant research on a topic from a database. See the page in this guide.

Scoping Reviews: Reviews that determine the general state of a medical question and locate gaps in the literature. They are more broad and less thorough than systematic reviews are. The Joanna Briggs Institute Reviewers’ Manual 2015 Methodology for JBI Scoping Reviews can be read here

Useful Guides

Workshop assessment

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