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A Guide to Conducting Systematic Reviews: Getting Started

How the library can help

The Institute of Medicine recommends that a librarians or information specialist be involved in the systematic review process.  In fact, a study shows that librarian involvement in systematic reviews improves both the quality and the reproducibility of the literature search (see Rethlefsen et al 2015).

Librarians at Cornell University Library can help you:

  • Identify relevant databases in which to conduct literature searches related to your topic.
  • Design and implement complex, comprehensive search strategies to maximize retrieval of relevant studies.
  • Use reference management software, such as Endnote and other tools to manage the study gathering and selection process.
  • Create search alerts to ensure that new studies are found while the systematic review is in progress.
  • Find existing systematic reviews and protocols to inform your own protocol development.
  • Track down hard-to-find full text articles for screening and review.
  • Write the methods section of your review for publication, to ensure clarity and transparency of the search process.

For more information about this service and to submit a help request, please visit www.library.cornell.edu/services/systematic-review

What is a Systematic Review?

A systematic review is a methodical and comprehensive literature synthesis focused on a well-formulated research question.  Its aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic, including both published and unpublished studies. Systematic reviews are conducted in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making and identify gaps in research.  They may involve a meta-analysis. 

Systematic reviews are much more time-intensive than traditional literature reviews.  They usually require a multi-person research team. Before embarking on a systematic review, it is important to determine whether the body of literature warrants one and to clearly identify your reasons for conducting a systematic review. For a list of other types of literature reviews, see this page.

How does a systematic review differ from a traditional literature review?

 

Other types of literature reviews and evidence synthesis

Evidence maps and systematic maps

  • Systematically and transparently collects and categorizes existing evidence on a broad question of policy or management importance.
  • May critically evaluate existing evidence, but does not attempt to synthesize the results in the way a systematic review would. (see EE Journal and CIFOR)

Literature (Narrative) Review

  • A broad term referring to reviews with a wide scope and non-standardized methodology. 
  • Search strategies, comprehensiveness, and time range covered will vary and do not follow an established protocol.

Meta-analysis

  • Statistical technique for combining the findings from disparate quantitative studies.
  • Uses statistical methods to objectively evaluate, synthesize, and summarize results.
  • May be conducted independently or as part of a systematic review.

Rapid Review

Scoping Review

  • Addresses a broader research question or set of questions
  • Often conducted in preparation for conducting a systematic review
  • Seeks to identify research gaps and opportunities for evidence synthesis
  • See Arksey and O'Malley (2005) for methodological guidance.

Umbrella Review

  • Reviews other systematic reviews on a topic. 
  • Often defines a broader question than is typical of a traditional systematic review.
  • This type of review is most useful when there are competing interventions to consider.