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Gerstein Science Information Centre

Knowledge syntheses: Systematic & Scoping Reviews, and other review types

Definition

According to Cochrane:

“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.”

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

When is a Systematic Review methodology appropriate?

When to Use It: Per Grant & Booth (2009) and Lasserson et al. (2019), a systematic review might be right for you if you're interested in:

  • Answering a specific question(s) that is related to an intervention, diagnostic test, prognostic factor or other health or healthcare topic
  • Summarizing the most reliable information on a specific topic, and do so using rigorous, unbiased methods
  • Summarizing a variety of study designs such as mixed methods, qualitative and quantitative studies for a specific topic

Elements of a Systematic Review

The following characteristics, strengths, and challenges of systematic reviews are derived from Booth (2016) and Grant & Booth (2009)

Characteristics:

  • One of the most prominent types of reviews
  • The goal of a systematic review is to systematically search for, appraise and synthesis research evidence.
  • A key feature involves the reporting of clear, transparent, and reproducible methods used to achieve the systematic review
  • The end goal is to produce a synthesized review that limits bias

Strengths:

  • The point of a systematic review is to gather all relevant knowledge on a specific topic 
  • Can involve a mix of study designs including quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods

Challenges:

  • Limiting inclusion criteria for singly study design restricts the insights one can gain from information
  • Time-consuming
  • Requires a team

Methods and Guidance

The following resources are considered to be the best in the field of Systematic Reviews in terms of guidance and reporting.

METHODS & GUIDANCE

  • Centre for Reviews and Dissemination - Guidance from the CRD in understanding proper conduct when conducting a systematic review.
  • Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions  - Defined as "the official guide that describes in detail the process of preparing and maintaining Cochrane systematic reviews on the effects of healthcare interventions". It includes: "guidance on the standard methods applicable to every review (planning a review, searching and selecting studies, data collection, risk of bias assessment, statistical analysis, GRADE and interpreting results), as well as more specialised topics (non-randomized studies, adverse effects, complex interventions, equity, economics, patient-reported outcomes, individual patient data, prospective meta-analysis, and qualitative research)". (Cochrane, About the Handbook, para. 2).
  • Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI). Reviewer's Manual. A comprehensive guide focusing primarily on the conduct of systematic reviews, covering a broad range of questions and study designs. 

REPORTING GUIDELINE

PRISMA Checklist - This 27-item checklist (2009) ensures proper and transparent reporting for each element in a systematic review and meta-analysis. Please note that an updated version is forthcoming.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Check out the supplementary resources page for additional information on systematic reviews, including online courses and books.