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Doing a systematic review

Guidance on the steps involved in doing a systematic review, and ways in which the Library can help.

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review...

  • Answers a focused (usually clinical) question
  • Uses a comprehensive, reproducible search strategy
  • Identifies ALL relevant studies (published and unpublished)
  • Evaluates all results for inclusion and quality
  • Brings together the findings in an unbiased way and presents a balanced summary
  • Should be run by at least two researchers, but often involves large teams looking at complex research questions
  • Can take months or even years to complete
Getting help

Your subject liaison librarian can help with some of the steps in the process, such as choosing where to search (step 2), developing a search strategy (step 3), running & recording your search (step 4) and managing your search results (step 5). Refer to your supervisor for help with developing your protocol, evaluating the studies and writing up the review.

How does it differ from a systematic literature search?

You may be asked by someone to do a systematic review, when what they actually want you to do is a systematic review of the literature. There are few key differences.

Systematic review Systematic literature review
Brings together the results of studies to answer a specific question Provides a subjective summary of the literature on a topic
Extensive search covering published and grey literature Thorough search of published literature
Involves a detailed protocol often developed using the PICOS framework Includes a detailed search strategy
Involves three or more people to eliminate bias Can be produced by a single person, so open to bias
Can take months or years to produce Weeks or months to produce


  • A detailed protocol
  • Systematic search strategy
  • Review of results against eligibility criteria
  • Evaluation of studies
  • Interpretation and presentation of results
  • Extensive reference list covering both included and excluded studies
  • Detailed appendices showing search strategies


  • Introduction
  • Methods - search strategy
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Long reference list

Summary adapted from: Kysh, L. (n.d.) What's in a name? The difference between a systematic review and a literature review and why it matters. URL: [9 April 2018]

Systematic reviews summarised

The following videos offer two explanations of systematic reviews and what's involved in doing them.