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Systematic Reviews

Information on how to conduct systematic reviews in psychology and the health sciences

Do I Need a Systematic Review?

It is important to know if what you need is actually a systematic review.  Consider the following questions before you begin.


Graphic:  Systematic Review Process 


Is your question specific and clearly defined?  Because your research question determines the search strategy, inclusion & exclusion criteria, & data that you extract from the selected studies, your question should be specific and clearly defined first to ensure scientific rigor and transparency. Focused questions often specify population, disease or problem, intervention or exposure, & outcome.

Do you have a protocol to develop the search methodology for a rigorous & systematic search?  A protocol identifies the steps in the process, beginning with why the search needs to be done and including inclusion & exclusion criteria, limits, &  more. The University of Warwick has created a helpful methodology template.

Do you have a team to work on the review?  A team composed of 1) subject experts; 2) two or more literature reviewers; 3) an informationist/librarian; & 4) a statistician provide sufficient expertise for each step of the systematic review process. They will work together to:

  • Identify potentially relevant studies through search strategies
  • Select studies based on explicit inclusion & exclusion criteria
  • Critically appraise the included studies
  • Analyze & interpret the results
  • Disseminate the results through publication

Will you use good data extraction and management techniques? At least two researchers should be involved in the data extraction process to reduce errors. 

Do you have the time that it takes to properly conduct a systematic review?  It is not unusual for this type of review to take 18-24 months.

Do you have a method for discerning bias?  There are many types of bias, including selection, performance, & reporting bias, and assessing the risk of bias of individual studies is an important part of your study design.

Can you afford to have articles in languages other than English translated?  You should include all relevant studies in your systematic review, regardless of the language they were published in, so as to avoid language bias


Your research question, timeline, or resources may be better suited for another type of review. For more information on review types, see the Types of Reviews page of this guide or use this tool.


Recommendations adapted from:
Institute of Medicine. (2011). Finding what works in health care: standards for systematic reviews. Eden, J. Levit, L., Berg, A., & Morton, S. (Eds.) Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.